Pitt came into today’s matchup with 15th ranked UNC in full-March mode. The Panthers were aided by an early 17-2 run and led by as many as 20 points. They were able to narrowly escape a spirited Tar Heels comeback to earn an 80-75 victory, advancing to the ACC tournament semifinals.
The Panthers continued their strategy from their blowout victory over Wake Forest on Wednesday. They deployed a stifling, physical and aggressive defense with an excellent shooting display. The main difference in today’s game was the Panther’s 43-35 rebounding edge over UNC.
After a crushing defeat at home to NC State on March 3, Panthers head coach Jamie Dixon was disgusted by his teams rebounding performance. That night, NC State held the Panthers to just two offensive rebounds.
Dixon said about his team’s performance, “We have been stressing rebounding all along. I think our guys don’t recognize it.”
Today, the Panthers were on top of the rebounds, and they were led by senior center Talib Zanna. Zanna was special today, recording a career best 21 rebounds and 19 points. Zanna led the Panthers to a game-high 20 point lead with just a bit over seven minutes remaining. Zanna is having a tournament to remember thus far. In his first two games, he has recorded a combine 36 points and 30 rebounds.
But Marcus Paige and the Tar Heels would not go down without a fight. The Panthers had trouble breaking UNC’s full court pressure and for a while there, it look as if the Tar Heels had a comeback fight in them. They were able to narrow the Pitt lead to three, but the Tar Heels were unable to tie it nor take a lead. Paige recorded an impressive 27 points but it was not enough.
Freshman guard Josh Newkirk continues to mature in each game that he plays. Newkirk recorded 9 points, and led the Panthers through the Tar Heels’ full-court pressure.
The last time that the Panthers faced off with fifth ranked Virginia was on February 2. The Panthers lost a hard-fought game to the Cavaliers 48-45 in part to a Malcolm Brogdon buzzer-beating three-pointer.
However, this Pitt basketball team is not the same team from early February. This ACC tournament edition of the Pitt basketball team is similar to the team that showed up in the early portion of the season. They have combined shut-down, physical defense and high scoring offense perfectly.
If the Panthers continue to play as they have played so far in the tournament they will be able to persevere over Virginia.
In Virginia’s first conference tournament game today, the Cavaliers were led by Joe Harris and his 20 points. Virginia had little trouble in disposing of the Florida State Seminoles 64-51.
It will certainly be a tough matchup for the Panthers, however if this Pitt basketball team continues their strong play, they will beat Virginia.
The game will be on ESPN2 tomorrow at 1:00 pm.