PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Tray Woodall had seen enough. Too much, maybe.
The former Pittsburgh point guard watched the Panthers let lowly Wake Forest force a second overtime on Tuesday night when Woodall _ watching underneath one of the baskets adjacent to a surprisingly sparse student section _ pulled his phone out and vented.
“No disrespect to this Pitt team, but I hope this doesn’t go into triple OT,” Woodall tweeted. “This isn’t a Pitt vs. WVU 3OT game.”
Woodall was a redshirt freshman during Pitt’s 98-95 win over the Mountaineers six years ago, scoring 12 points as two Top 25 teams and longtime rivals took turns trading big shots and big moments.
Last Tuesday night was … not that.
While the Panthers survived 101-95 in double overtime to improve to 18-7 overall and 7-6 in the ACC, the sense afterward wasn’t elation but a mix of relief and exasperation after barely fending off the league’s worst team. Pitt let a 10-point lead in the second half disappear and needed some help from Wake Forest _ which missed 16 of 28 free throws in regulation _ to avert an upset that would have been a gut punch to the program’s NCAA tournament hopes.
Coach Jamie Dixon did his best to remain upbeat, saying “I’ll believe we’ll get better.”
If Pitt wants to avoid getting passed over by the selection committee in consecutive seasons for the first time in Dixon’s 13-year tenure, the Panthers don’t have a choice. While the remaining schedule is tough _ the Panthers traveled to Syracuse Saturday then host Louisville and Duke this week _ Pitt’s biggest problem is the quality of its own play.
The program that molded itself on grit while becoming one of the most consistent winners in the Big East has lost its way on defense. Pitt is 14th in the 15-team ACC in opponent’s field goal percentage and well outside the top 100 nationally in defensive efficiency. Open 3-pointers, emphatic dunks. It isn’t one thing that’s bothering the Panthers, it’s everything.
Pressed on if this group simply lacks the physical and mental toughness that for so long served as Pitt’s trademark, Dixon runs his right hand through his hair and shakes his head.
“That would be making an excuse and saying we can’t do it so I’m not going to do that,” he said. “We can do it. I go in every day believing that we can.”
He’s just not seeing it on the floor. Though Dixon is quick to point out the Panthers remain effective rebounders _ they grabbed 26 offensive boards against the Demon Deacons alone _ they offer only infrequent resistance when forced to guard the rim. Pitt has been outscored in the paint by 46 points during its last four games against teams of varying pedigree, from blue bloods North Carolina and Virginia to slowly rebuilding Wake.
The most painful setback may have come at Miami. Playing a rare close game, the Panthers had a chance to beat a ranked team on the road disappear when they failed to box out 5-foot-10 guard Angel Rodriguez, who sliced through a sea of blue jerseys to tip in the winner.
“You can’t predict everything,” Dixon said. “Not everything makes sense.”
Including Pitt’s retreat into the middle of the ACC.
While Louisville and Syracuse did little to modify their style while leaping from the Big East to the ACC before the 2013-14 season, the Panthers made it a point to bring in versatile, highly skilled offensive players. Dixon called Josh Newkirk a prototypical ACC point guard when Newkirk arrived on campus in the fall of 2013. It lasted two years, Newkirk struggled to find a role and stay healthy, eventually transferring to Indiana.
While the Panthers have two of the ACC’s better big men in junior forwards Michael Young and Jamel Artis, neither have distinguished themselves when forced to get in a defensive stance and graduate transfer centers Rafael Maia and Alonzo Nelson-Ooda have proven only sporadically effective. Dixon continues to tinker, even throwing a 3-2 zone at the Hurricanes, while allowing there are bad habits his team needs to change. At this point, simply being average would be an improvement.
“I wouldn’t say we’re a soft team,” senior point guard James Robinson said. “I think we can get a lot tougher. At this point in the season everybody wants to turn it up that other notch.”
Long after the Petersen Events Center emptied last Tuesday night, Woodall and assistant coach Brandon Knight pulled Young aside for an impromptu pep talk. The two links to Pitt’s recent past and perhaps the most important player in the Panthers’ uneven present huddled for more than half an hour. When it was over, Woodall took to Twitter to offer a reminder and maybe hope.
“Passion,” Woodall tweeted, followed by another that said simply “Panther Pride.”
AP college basketball website: www.collegebasketball.ap.org