Nelly Cummings tries a shot in Friday's first-round contest against Iowa State. Cummings led Pitt scorers with 13 in the win. (Photo: Pitt Athletics)
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Pitt head coach Jeff Capel said after his team’s first-round game here Friday that his team had found the defensive identity which had eluded it over the prior month. Though Capel’s statement was factually accurate, one might have been left to wonder if was an understatement.
Capel’s 11th-seeded Panthers held sixth-seeded Iowa State to 23.3 percent from the floor and under 10 percent from three, keeping the clamps on the Cyclones despite a cold shooting night and claiming a 59-41 victory in opening-round action in the Greensboro Coliseum.
“I said out there and I said to these guys in the locker room, we were a really good defensive team for the majority of the year except for the last month of the season, and we've really dialed back in these past two games and played at an elite level,” Capel said. “I’m really, really proud of them.
“It allowed us to keep a lead, to extend a lead, and it's the reason why we won the basketball game. It's really cool that everyone contributed. Everyone stepped up and made some huge plays.”
The suffocating defensive effort capped the Panthers’ second win in 48 hours and catapulted Capel’s club into a Sunday matchup with third-seeded Xavier. To hear Capel’s team tell it, that may be an advantage.
“Honestly, we've been doing this night in and night out in the ACC. We were prepared for any type of game. We've been playing every type of game in the ACC and the nonconference we had,” Pitt guard Greg Elliott said. “We were prepared for any type of game. I would say playing in Dayton gave us a little head start. I don't know how long it had been since Iowa State had played, but we were just coming off a game, and I feel like that gave us a little jolt at the beginning.”
Pitt (24-11) jumped out to a 22-2 lead early, riding a string of five makes in six tries to start the game. The fiery Panther shooting cooled significantly from there, though, as the Panthers converted just one of their final 11 shots in the period. Iowa State (19-14) surged, meanwhile, putting together a 19-5 run to slice the Panthers’ margin to six. Pitt kept Iowa State at bay for the rest of the half, taking a 30-23 advantage to the interval.
“We got off to an unbelievable start. We withstood a run from them,” Capel said. “We came back from halftime and got organized, got our offense organized again, and we did a really good job of attacking them, but the main thing the whole time was our defense.”
The Cyclones emerged from the locker room and got a Gabe Kalscheur bucket to reduce the lead to a perilous five. Any tension that may have existed among the blue-and-gold faithful quickly evaporated, though. Nelly Cummings converted an and-one opportunity, then knocked down a triple to quickly extend the lead back to 11. The deficit stretched to 20 by the four-minute mark, and was never again in single digits.
“Credit Pitt for a really good game plan and executing it. They were the better team here today,” Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “I’m really proud of our guys, how they continued to fight, but it just wasn't our best today. Unfortunately, hate that it happened on this stage, but, again, all the credit goes to Pitt and the game that their coaches put together and their players executed.”
Iowa State finished the game hitting just 14 of 60 shots (23.3 percent). The Cyclones hit 2-of-21 (9.5 percent) from distance in the game, with only one of those makes coming in 10 second-half attempts. ISU hit just 5-of-29 (17.2 percent) in the second 20.
“For us, we're a team that is fueled by our defense and felt like early we didn't dictate and disrupt quite as well as we needed to to get our natural rhythm going,” Otzelberger said. “I feel like our guys were working really hard to get great opportunities and their effort was good, but, you know, Pitt had a sound plan. They were playing personnel really heavy, and it worked for them here today. Credit to their defense. We just didn't see it go through the hoop enough.”
The struggles affected the Cyclones’ offensive strategy.
“Definitely there's always a little bit of frustration,” Cyclone forward Tre King said. “You know you always want to have your shot falling and stuff like that. Like Coach said, we are a team that prides ourselves on defense. One thing that he has instilled into us is whenever our offense is not falling, take pride on the defensive end to get it falling on offense.”
“We fuel ourselves with defense, and that kind of gets us going,” Kalscheur added. “When the ball is not going in, we work on these shots. We stay true to who we are with mechanics and confidence. That’s not a factor of kind of why the ball was going in. It just wasn't going in. Sometimes that happens, and you just have to eat the punches, but we kind of wish we had that one back and wish our offense was going smoothly, but...”
Cummings led the Panthers with 13, finding the net on 5-of-11 tries. Jamarius Burton contributed 11, while Elliott added 10 and secured eight caroms. The Panthers shot 14-for-41 (34.9 percent) from the maple, hitting 6-of-19 (31.6 percent) from deep. Pitt rode the free throw line to victory, hitting 25-of-29 (86.2 percent) of their attempts and all 10 they took in the second stanza.
Kalscheur and Jaren Holmes tallied 12 apiece for the Cyclones. The pair combined to hit 10-of-30 tries, despite hitting on just one three in 14 attempts. King added 11 for Iowa State. ISU secured 16 offensive rebounds in the contest.
Pitt advances to Sunday’s second round, where it will square off with third-seeded Xavier. Game time and network will be announced later Friday.