GREENSBORO, N.C. — Pitt’s bid to make the Sweet 16 fell short with a 84-73 loss to Xavier in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum.. The Panthers concluded the season with a 24-12 record after making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.
Pitt trailed most of the second half by double digits, but the Panthers put on one last spirited push in the final game of the season. The Panthers got to within 8 points on a Greg Elliott three-pointer to make it 76-68 with 1:45 left in the game. The Musketeers had some struggled at the free throw line, which kept the Panthers within striking distance.
Xavier shot 16-of-26 from the line for the game, which extended Pitt’s hopes.
Blake Hinson’s three-pointer with 34.4 left to make it 82-73, but Xavier did buckle down at the end on the line and Pitt missed its final two shot attempts and the comeback bid ultimately came too late in the game.
Pitt held a 15-14 advantage at the 13:15 mark of the first half on a Nike Sibande layup, but from there is was pretty much all Xavier until Pitt’s late rally. The Big East squad used a 7-0 run to stretch a 30-24 advantage to 37-24 and the momentum clearly swung in their favor.
The Musketeers torched the Panthers in the first half with a 52% showing from the floor. Xavier guard Adam Kunkel lit the Panthers up with 15 points, all via three-pointers. Kunkel was held scoreless in the second half, but was also one of five Xavier players to reach double figures as the balanced attack gave Pitt some trouble.
The Musketeers were led by 7’0” senior Jack Nunge, who finished with 18 points, with 14 coming in the first half. The Xavier big man was 8-of-12 from the floor, and the Panthers never really had answer for him inside. Nunge eventually fouled out with 3:19 remaining in the game and only scored four points after halftime
Xavier star player Souley Boum was held scoreless in the first half and only finished 3-for-13 from the field. His 14 points in the second half certainly picked up the slack for the Musketeers and kept Pitt on the ropes.
Xavier’s initial burst in the first half was fueled by great movement. Sean Miller’s team finished with 22 assists on 30 made field goals, including 17 assists in the first half. The Musketeers shot 47% from the floor for the game.
For as well as Xavier played on offense on Sunday, the Panthers simply struggled to make shots. Pitt senior guards Jamarius Burton and Nelly Cummings were a combined a 10-of-32 in this one.
Burton finished with 16 points, but had to work extremely hard to get there. Cummings finished with 9 points on 3-of-14 shooting. The Panthers were led by Blake Hinson, who finished with 18 points. Hinson was 3-of-8 from three-point range, including a moon shot in the second half to ignite the Pitt crowd with 4:33 left to make it 74-60.
Aside from Hinson, Pitt did not make its outside shots against Xavier, and struggled at times to even find open looks. The Panthers were 6-of-20 for the game from three-point range. Xavier did an effective job of keeping Pitt from making a run in the second half, by limiting their outside looks.
Pitt tried to go with a smaller lineup at times in the second half. Jeff Capel opted to use Hinson as the center with a four-guard lineup, but the Panthers were not letting shots fly from deep. Despite trailing by double digits to open the second half, Pitt only attempted four three-pointers in the first ten minutes after halftime.
Federiko Federiko, Pitt’s starting center, returned to action on Friday against Iowa State after missing Tuesday’s First Four game, but was largely a non-factor. He was even less effective against Xavier, as he only played one minute and spent most of the game off to the side of the bench on an exercise bike. Capel said there was a noticeable limp and did not want to injure him further.
In Federiko’s place, Guillermo Diaz Graham made his third consecutive start. The freshman center finished with 11 points, eight rebounds, and three blocks to punctuate a strong conclusion to his season.
Despite being limited inside, Pitt battled on the glass. Xavier won the rebounding department narrowly 44-41. The Panthers shot exceptionally well from the free throw line on Friday (25-of-29), but finished only 13-of-20 against Xavier, as perhaps some fatigue played a role after playing a third tournament game in six days.
Pitt won two NCAA Tournament games this year for the first time since 2009. The Panthers were picked to finish 14th in the ACC. Jeff Capel, after four straight losing seasons to open his Pitt tenure, was likely coaching for his job. He got Pitt back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 and won ACC Coach of the Year along the way.
The Panthers lose four seniors: Jamarius Burton, Nelly Cummings, Greg Elliott, and Nike Sibande. Pitt will bring back two starters, leading scorer Blake Hinson, along with Federiko Federiko inside. The Diaz Graham twins are set to return after making serious strides down the stretch and the Panthers have three recruits already signed in the class of 2023, highlighted by a pair of four-star recruits.