Panther-lair - Familiar problems for Pitt in loss at Wake Forest
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Familiar problems for Pitt in loss at Wake Forest

Jeff Capel believes his team has a chance to be good this season. From individual standouts to overall team growth, Pitt’s third-year head coach has built a team that can be competitive every time it takes the court in an ACC game.

But that doesn’t mean the Panthers can take any opponent lightly or let up when they get a big lead, which was the case on Saturday night, as Pitt dropped to 8-3 overall and 4-2 in the conference after a 12-point second-half lead turned into a one-point loss to the previously winless-in-league-play Deacons.

“We didn’t have the energy that’s required to have a chance to become a good team,” said Capel.

The problem is, that quote wasn’t from Saturday night’s loss.

It was from the season-opening loss to St. Francis (Pa.), when Pitt sleepwalked to an 80-70 defeat against a team that has only won two games in the 10 it has played since beating Pitt.

Which is to say, the issue is not new. In fact, Capel was bemoaning his team’s lack of consistent energy a year ago, too, when the Panthers blew the momentum of a season-opening win against Florida State with a loss to Nicholls State a few days later.

“I’m incredibly disappointed in us,” Capel said that night in November, 2019, “and when I say us, that’s our staff - obviously it starts with me - and our team. We didn’t have the energy that was worthy of winning throughout the game.”

In both of those instances, Pitt bounced back. After losing to Nicholls State, the Panthers beat every remaining nonconference opponent other than West Virginia. This year, they responded to the St. Francis loss by winning their next five, including the conference opener at Miami, before losing to Louisville in a game that was played without leading scorers Justin Champagnie and Au’Diese Toney.

And after the Louisville loss, Pitt put together a three-game winning streak: beating Syracuse in a home-and-home and then holding off Duke at the Petersen Events Center on Tuesday night.

That last win created some serious momentum for the program, which had a legitimate shot at breaking into the top 25 - as long as it didn’t have a letdown at Wake Forest. The Deacons had battled this season, but they were still 0-6 in conference games entering Saturday. If Pitt’s players approached that game with the level of energy they had for Duke, a win should have been the expected result.

And early on, the Panthers did just that. Wake Forest sophomore forward Ismael Massoud was on fire in the first half, hitting 5-of-5 from three to keep the Deacons competitive, but Pitt was more than up to the challenge. In the first half, the Panthers shot 61.5% from the floor, hit 4-of-8 three-pointers, made all nine of their free throws and outrebounded Wake Forest 15-8 to take a seven-point lead into halftime.

Pitt even pushed the lead to 12 in the second half and seemed to be in control of the game. But whereas the Deacons kept draining three’s - they finished with 15 on 32 attempts - the Panthers fell off. They were sloppy with the basketball, lacked the necessary energy to defend beyond the arc and got outrebounded in the final 20 minutes.

Before it was over, Wake Forest stretched its lead to 10, and while Pitt fought back and Xavier Johnson had a shot at a game-winner as time expired, the ball went off the rim and the Panthers got the loss they had earned over the final 18 minutes of the game.

“This sucks, the fact that we perform like this,” Capel said after the game. “Not just the loss but - and again, that’s not taking anything away from Wake. They were tremendous. They were tremendous. But we weren’t deserving of winning. And even if that shot would have gone in, I would have felt that way. I would have been happier, but we weren’t deserving of winning by some of the things that we did.”

Now Pitt is left looking for answers again. The Panthers showed real promise and improvement in beating Syracuse, Duke and Miami, and even in their loss to Louisville. But the inability to maintain a high level of play - driven by the lack of energy and urgency that Capel has bemoaned several times over the course of the last two seasons - is a concern for a team with enough talent to firmly be in the top half of the conference.

“We have to be able to handle success like mature people and be hungry for more and not be satisfied and understand what it means to show up every day,” Capel said. “The same things I said after Duke. I talked about how we showed up - everyone wants to ask after that game, and it was two games in a row, what have you done? We’ve shown up, we’ve had an edge, we’ve had that. And for the first time in a long time, we didn’t have it.”

Pitt will get a chance to bounce back against North Carolina on Tuesday night at the Petersen Events Center.