By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PITTSBURGH –– When the game stopped for the final TV timeout, with 3:49 remaining and Virginia leading 53-41, Pitt fans by the hundreds started streaming to the exits Saturday afternoon at the Petersen Events Center.
They missed a finish that was more dramatic than it needed to be. As UVA’s errors mounted, the Panthers scored 15 points in the last 3:26, a run that included three three-point plays and a trey, and they had a chance on their final possession to force overtime.
Pitt failed to get a shot off before time expired, however, and the Cavaliers headed home with a 59-56 victory. Afterward, they felt as much relief as jubilation.
“That would have been a hard [loss] to swallow,” head coach Tony Bennett said, “but thankfully we held on.”
For a team on the NCAA tournament bubble, every game is crucial, and the Wahoos (19-7 overall, 11-5 ACC) continue to ascend after a slow start in conference play. The victory was the fourth in a row and seventh in eight games for Virginia, the ACC’s fourth-place team.
“At the end of the day, a win’s a win,” senior forward Braxton Key said. “We’ll take it and get out of Pittsburgh with a win. We’re happier than coming out with a loss. But we just know we have a lot more work to do, and we’re far from a finished product.”
Coming of the final TV timeout, Key hit 1 of 2 free throws to push the Cavaliers’ lead to 54-41, and the outcome seemed settled. But the Panthers (15-13, 6-11) refused to concede, instead responding with a spirited rally.
“They attacked, made some plays, and we had too many uncharacteristic turnovers,” Bennett said.
“We were the aggressor,” said sophomore guard Xavier Johnson, who led Pitt with 16 points and a game-high six steals.
Sophomore point guard Kihei Clark led the Hoos with 17 points and sparkled for much of the game. But two of his six turnovers came in the final 3:25 and led to Pitt baskets.
“I like how he played up to that point,” Bennett said. “But you grow from it. You learn from it.”
With 52.2 seconds left and the score 58-56, Johnson had an opportunity to complete yet another three-point play for the Panthers. He missed his free throw, though, and freshman guard Casey Morsell rebounded for UVA. The ensuing possession ended with a shot-clock violation, the Cavaliers’ third of the game, but Key pulled down another huge rebound after Pitt guard Trey McGowens missed an open 3-point attempt.
The Panthers fouled Key, who went to the line with 4.3 seconds left. He’s hit only 58.1 percent of his free throws this season, but the 6-8 Key made the all-important front end of this one-and-one. After he missed his second free throw, Pitt called a timeout to set up a final play.
The ball ended up in the hands of junior guard Ryan Murphy, who was 0 for 6 from the floor. He didn’t get off his seventh attempt before the buzzer sounded, and the Cavaliers could finally exhale.
“Obviously we didn’t want it to get like that, but we’ll take the W,” Clark said.
In its previous game, a 78-65 victory over Boston College, UVA had five players with at least 10 points. Four Cavaliers hit that mark against Pitt. Joining Clark in double figures were Key, 6-9 fifth-year senior Mamadi Diakite and 6-5 junior Tomas Woldetensae, who scored 10 points each.
Diakite also pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds for the second double-double of his college career.
After a first half in which the Panthers outrebounded them 17-11, the Cavaliers finished plus-one on the boards, 33-32. The 5-9 Clark had three rebounds in the first half, the most of any UVA player, but Diakite grabbed eight after intermission.
“They were challenged at halftime and responded to that challenge for the most part on the glass,” Bennett said. “So that was very important. We needed it all.”
On the Panthers’ final possession, they inbounded from the baseline under UVA’s basket. The Cavaliers, up three, could have fouled and sent Pitt to the line for a one-and-one, but Bennett chose to play it out.
“I just flip a coin before each game,” he said, smiling. “We’ve done it both ways, and we’ve been very poor both ways and we’ve been good both ways. It was a hard [decision] … We decided not to, and today it was a good decision, I guess.”
VALIANT EFFORT: Morsell sat out the final 7:02 of the BC game after spraining his right ankle Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena. “When it first happened, I thought it was going to be at least a week, or maybe longer,” he recalled Saturday.
He didn’t practice Thursday. But under the capable eye of head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba, Morsell tested his ankle Friday afternoon at JPJ and again during Virginia’s shootaround in Pittsburgh on Friday night.
The ankle “kept better and better,” Bennett said. Even so, Morsell’s availability was a game-time decision Saturday.
“I didn’t think he was going to play,” Key said.
Neither did Morsell. “I think today’s game was kind of a stretch, but once I got [to the arena] I warmed up … I really wanted to play.”
He ended up playing 24 minutes and 25 seconds, during which he totaled seven points, two rebounds and one assist and played excellent defense.
“I was sore the whole game, but honestly me being sore doesn’t ever stop me from playing,” Morsell said. “Once I got out there, the middle of the first half, the adrenaline started kicking in, and I didn’t feel it that much.”
Bennett said: “Pitt is so good at attacking the paint and beating you off the dribble, and I thought he really spread out and defended well, and he did some good things offensively, made his free throws and was steady.”
ROAD WARRIORS: The Cavaliers improved to 7-4 away from JPJ this season. In 11 seasons under Bennett, they’ve come to expect such success on the road.
“The way our system is geared, it shouldn’t matter [if the game is] home or away,” Bennett said.
Key said: “We’re just figuring out ways to win, whether it’s on the road or at home.”
SOUND BITES: For UVA, which leads the series 16-4, the victory was its fifth straight over the Panthers. Among the postgame comments Saturday afternoon:
• Bennett: “It’s hard to get wins, and we’re fighting, so we’ll take it.”
• Bennett: “Second half, I liked how we played defensively and I liked how we rebounded and played good, solid, tough basketball [until] the last four minutes.”
• Bennett on Morsell’s contribution: “That was good toughness on his part. It was a big shot in the arm for us.”
• Clark on the Panthers’ comeback: “They pressed, we turned the ball over, and they made shots. That’s how they were able to get back in it.”
• Clark: “I think almost all of our games have been down to the wire. I think we’re kind of learning to win at the end, but we’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the ball and sealing the [victory] with a lead like that.”
• Key: “The team needed me to make a free throw or two. I wish I’d made two at the end of the game, but we made one and we’ll move on from there.”
• Pitt head coach Jeff Capel: “We did some good things in the game, but we have to get to the point where we minimize mistakes, capitalize when we have opportunities, and we have to be mentally tougher for 40 minutes, especially against that team, since that program [has] established that’s their culture. Tony has done an amazing job with this group. They get better and better as the season’s going on.”
• Capel on Pitt’s struggles against the Cavaliers’ Pack Line defense: “They are the best defensive team in the country, and so year in, year out, they’re pretty consistent there, so I think a lot of it had to do with them. They are a hard team to score against. That’s why teams don’t shoot a good percentage against them and on average don’t score a lot of points against them.”
LOOKING AHEAD: Four regular-season games remain for UVA, starting Wednesday night against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. ESPN2 will televise the 7 o’clock game, the second meeting between the longtime rivals this season.
In the first, the Cavaliers rolled 65-39 at JPJ on Jan. 4. UVA leads the series 94-56 and has won three straight over the Hokies.
Virginia Tech took a record of 15-11, 6-9, into its Saturday night game with No. 6 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
UVA is back at JPJ next Saturday against sixth-ranked Duke. The 6 p.m. game, which ESPN will televise, is officially a sellout, but tickets might be available at StubHub, the Cavaliers’ official fan-to-fan ticket marketplace.