Pittsburgh men’s basketball goes dancing

Written By Kayla Sterner, Co-Sports Editor

Despite a 96-69 loss to Duke University in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s men’s basketball tournament, the University of Pittsburgh’s men’s basketball team earned a spot as a play-in team in the First Four. After they defeated Mississippi State in a thriller (60-59), they punched their ticket to go dancing in the NCAA’s biggest basketball tournament. This was their first NCAA tournament win since 2014. [It was also the first game to mess up my bracket.]

The Panthers’ premiere game against Mississippi State was a back-and-forth affair with 21 lead changes. Pitt scored 35 points in the first half compared to MSU’s 34, and both teams netted 25 points in the second half to keep the game close and intense. Mississippi grabbed 42 rebounds compared to the Panthers’ 25 boards and had 14 assists while Pitt had 10. 

The 11th-seeded squad was 9-of-19 behind the arc and put up a disappointing 21-of-54 from the field and were 9-of-15 from the charity stripe. Luckily for Pittsburgh, MSU was even more inconsistent with the hoop. 

Graduate student guard Nelly Cummings led all scorers with 15 points, three rebounds and four assists. Graduate student guard Greg Elliot added 13 points and five assists while junior forward Blake Hinson netted 12 points and four assists. Redshirt senior guard Nike Sibande was good for 11 points and five rebounds in the winning effort. 

The play of the day unfolded with just under three seconds left to play. Mississippi State was down by one point and had possession of the ball — as MSU attempted a layup, Pitt’s 7-foot freshman forward Guillermo Diaz Graham swatted it away. When the buzzer sounded, chaos erupted — the Panthers’ moved to the next round.

Pittsburgh vs Iowa State 

Pittsburgh was then set to face No. 6 seed Iowa State for the round of 64 in Greensboro, NC on St. Patrick’s Day. This game was less intense and low scoring as Pitt jumped out to a 22-2 run with 10:25 left to play in the first half. The Panthers scoring got quiet as the Cyclones responded with a 17-4 run capped by a dunk from senior forward Tre King. Pitt held on to lead 30-23 as the first half of the game closed out. 

Iowa State cut the deficit to five at the start of the second half after a layup put the game at 30-25, but they were never able to close the gap. After a triple from Cummings, both teams then went scoreless for nearly two minutes until graduate guard Jamarius Burton knocked down a jumper to lead 38-26. 

Both teams hit a scoring drought again before Guillermo Diaz Graham slammed through the air with a dunk to grab a 42-30 advantage. Diaz Graham was assisted by his twin brother, Jorge. A pair of free throws from Elliot sparked a 12-4 run that led to a 56-34 advantage. Pitt held on to win 59-41 and advance to the round of 32. 

Cummings led all scorers once again with 13 points, three assists and two steals. Burton tacked on 11 points, four boards and three assists. Elliot rounded out the big three just shy of a double-double with 10 points and eight rebounds. 

Pitt improved at the free throw line after they shot an effective 25-of-29. However, they were only 14-of-41 (34.1%) from the field and 6-of-19 (31.6%) from downtown. Iowa St. on the other hand, had a toxic relationship with the net. The Cyclones shot an embarrassingly low 2-of-21 (9.5%) from behind the arc and 14-of-60 (23.3%) from the field.

The Panthers had 39 boards compared to Iowa State’s 37. Pitt had 15 turnovers, but they were able to ground themselves to pull out the win. Next stop: Xavier.


Pittsburgh vs Xavier

Here lies the end of Pittsburgh’s Cinderella story. After strong showings in their first two matches, Pitt was not able to contain the blaze that accompanied No. 3 seed Xavier. 

The Musketeers found the net first and went on a 7-4 run that was capped by a dunk from graduate student forward Jack Nunge. Fifteen seconds later, Guillermo Diaz Graham slammed down his own dunk. A foul from Xavier sent Elliot to the charity stripe, where he nailed three free throws to tie the game at seven apiece. 

The first half was a back-and-forth affair up until the halfway mark when the Musketeers went on a 7-2 run to snag a 10 points advantage (30-20). Xavier jumped out to a 16-point lead (42-26) with 5:01 left in the first half. Pitt tried to keep the game at an arm’s length, but they trailed 48-34 heading into the final 20 minutes of play. 

Burton opened up the second half with a jumper for the Panthers to cut the deficit to 12, but the Musketeers responded with four quick points to lead 52-36 with 17:37 left to play. As Pitt struggled to find a rhythm, Xavier kept draining buckets. A layup from graduate student guard Souley Boum with 7:22 left gave the Musketeers a 20-point advantage, which ultimately killed any hope of a comeback. 

The Panthers were able to tighten the gap to trail by eight (76-68) with 1:44 remaining, but Xavier netted another eight points to move onto the next round with an 84-73 victory. 

Hinson led all scorers with 18 points and five rebounds while Burton netted 16 of his own and snagged seven boards. Guillermo Diaz Graham had 11 points to round out the double-figures group and was just shy of a double-double with eight rebounds. Cummings scored nine points, three rebounds and five assists. 

Despite the loss, Pittsburgh had an impressive showing at the big dance. Although Elliot, Cummings and Burton are graduate students, there are young players like the Diaz Graham brothers that should give fans hope. Maybe next year, Panthers.