That’s strange. There’s a weird feeling among Pitt fans and the basketball team. It’s been a couple months since we had this sensation.
Pitt notched its first Big East road win. Coach Dixon moved to 5-4 in games at Morgantown — more wins down there than the previous six head coaches if you are wondering.
Pitt did a very good job defending the 3-point shot (though, the Hoopies own misfires didn’t hurt). The fact that WVU kept hoisting them really helped Pitt. WVU shot 4-19 outside the perimeter (with a 1-11 shooting out there in the second half). From inside, they were 17-33 — Pitt’s 2-pt FG defense still needs a lot of work. A bit of panic by the Eers. Not only did they have much better success going inside — and getting to the free throw line — they were also putting Pitt players in foul trouble.
Nasir Robinson was limited to only 25 minutes because of fouls. Lamar Patterson had to be careful. Zanna struggled on defense. The good news, J.J. Moore and Dante Taylor both did a nice job on defense. We — I have been hard on both of them, especially for their effort on defense. Last night, they did really good work. Even though, Moore, continues to be in a shooting funk (but at least in this game he tried going towards the hoop at points), he gave the effort and bothered WVU on the perimeter.
The work by Taylor, was especially good in the second half as he stayed on Kilicli, and wore him down.
Kilicli went toe-to-toe with Pitt forwards Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor in the post. He looked strong early, mixing powerful drop steps with soft hook shots. However, Kilicli struggled down the stretch, visibly fatigued, and couldn’t finish in crucial situations.
“I shot horrible,” said Kilicli, who finished 6 of 13 from the floor after a 2 for 10 showing against Syracuse on Saturday. “It’s under 50 percent.”
Taylor was grinding in this game. He worked for the boards and was patient with his chances in the second half. And yes, the WVU gameplan was to go inside more. The WVU players just didn’t do it.
West Virginia called a number of sets to give their front court good looks. Kilicli made a habit of running off Jones’ screens on the block, which gave the Mountaineers opportunities inside.
“That was our main focus to pound it inside, get something close and get us some easy baskets,” Jones said.
“Once the game starts slipping away, everybody starts panicking,” Kilicli said. “We start doing things we’re not supposed to do, and everybody’s mind goes out of the game.”
Wait a minute. During the losing streak, I thought Pitt wasn’t tough enough — mentally or physically. Too easy to panic. Now, they aren’t.
But West Virginia coach Bob Huggins gave Dixon more. It happened during their postgame handshake and embrace.
“I told Jamie they’re tougher than us,” Huggins recalled. “They out-toughed us.”
What sweet words they were to Dixon.
It’s funny; that’s the exact sentiment the Pitt players had outside of their happy locker room.
“We’re a bunch of fighters on this team, a bunch of winners at that,” guard Tray Woodall said. “We all come from winning programs. That’s why coach Dixon recruited us. We’re not used to losing and we don’t like it. We’re always going to keep fighting.”
A week ago, that would have seemed like so much hot air.
Those of you who have done the liveblogs where I have been around during the losing streak, probably know how irritated I would get when someone would call the team soft and not mentally tough. They were playing poorly. They were frustrated. They were without Woodall. A lot was going wrong. But I consider the “toughness” argument as silly as the “they wanted it more” claim that even Nas would trot out after some losses. Effort, desire, will, chemistry, even toughness can be a difference when all other things are equal, and maybe even when things are not equal for one game. But when things like injuries, skill and ability are not equal; the intangibles matter a lot less over the course of a season.
The primary story, though was Tray Woodall carrying the team in the first half. Unlike the Georgetown game where Pitt raced out to the lead and never gave it back, Pitt took a big shot from WVU early. The Hoopies raced out to a 17-9 lead and looked like they had Pitt’s offense bottled up. Pitt battled back to show that this game would be tight. That it would be a brawl. Both teams would go back-and-forth to the end.
Then Tray happened. In the final 6:32 of the first half he scored 13 of Pitt’s final 18 points to take a 33-29 lead into the lockerroom. A lead Pitt never relinquished.
“I’m confident in myself that I can get it going,” Woodall said. “I’m a creative point guard first. But at the same time I’m a leader, and if my team needs me to step up and score some baskets, I try to do that for them.”
Pitt sorely needed it after scoring just nine points in the first 12 minutes of the half. The Panthers scored 24 points over the final eight minutes, and they never looked back once they took a 30-29 lead with 48 seconds to go before halftime.
“That’s a big plus when he does that,” senior forward Nasir Robinson said of Woodall’s shooting ability.
“When he gets it going like that it’s huge.”
“He came out and played his heart out,” junior center Dante Taylor said.
“He was doing everything he worked on in the offseason tonight. He was doing that dribble and step-back 3. I’m happy for him.”
The one thing that has become clear, is that this Pitt squad is Woodall’s team. Not Gibbs. Not Nas. Those two are team leaders, but it is from their work-ethic and how hard they go in practice and games. Woodall is the guy the rest of the team looks to set things up. To make everyone know what will happen. To talk to them. Make them know where they should be and that they will be rewarded for doing it.