It’s fair to suggest that the Pittsburgh Panthers might be the most frustrated 16-2 college basketball team in the country. Having seen their unbeaten run ended by one former Big East rival in a 44-43 loss to the Cincinnati Bearcats, the Panthers fell for the second time this season to an ex-Big East rival on Saturday by a 59-54 count at the Syracuse Orange.
The game shaped up as a battle for ACC supremacy, with Pittsburgh and Syracuse the lone remaining undefeated teams in league play. Winning at the Carrier Dome was never going to be an easy task, but it’s not been an impossible one for head coach Jamie Dixon‘s Pitt teams over the years. And the Panthers did a lot of things Saturday that teams have to do if they are going to win at Syracuse. Pittsburgh outrebounded Syracuse 35-24, including 16 offensive rebounds, which teams must get to succeed against Syracuse given how poorly those teams generally shoot from the field. Pitt also committed only 11 turnovers. Lamar Patterson led Pittsburgh with 18 points, while Talib Zanna contributed 12 points and 11 rebounds.
But in the end, Pittsburgh just wasn’t quite good enough. Whether the Panthers are the clear second-choice in the ACC probably won’t be settled until Pittsburgh takes on the likes of Virginia and Clemson, who are the only other teams to have only one conference loss so far. But it has to be grating to Dixon and his players that in their two losses, there have been plenty of chances to win the games. Pitt could very easily be 18-0 right now and challenging Arizona as deserving of the No. 1 ranking in the country.
Instead, with a 52-49 lead and 4:31 to go on Saturday, the Panthers only managed to score two points the rest of the game. Syracuse finished the contest on a 10-2 run and when the Panthers needed buckets, they were able to find decent looks against Syracuse’s trademark zone defense, but they wouldn’t fall, while other more forced shots didn’t stand a chance. Pittsburgh shot 38.3 percent from the field in the game and didn’t have any field goals at all in the final 6:02.
A team that wants to be in consideration for a top-10 ranking and be regarded as the ACC’s best team has to do better than that. Syracuse made all the plays when the game was on the line and Pittsburgh didn’t, much like the earlier loss to Cincinnati. The Panthers, 18 games into their season, are still looking for a signature win, especially given that the combined conference record of the four ACC teams Pitt has beaten so far is a lowly 7-13.
Dixon must get his players to respond and have them at the top of their game come Tuesday, when Clemson visits Pittsburgh in a game that could help decide the second-place team in the conference for now. Pittsburgh’s players must refocus now to make sure Saturday’s loss doesn’t stay in their heads and cost them another game on Tuesday.