Panther-lair - Pitt keeps up the fight
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Pitt keeps up the fight

MORE HEADLINES - No. 2 Duke looks the part in win over Pitt | Capel on the loss, Williamson, how his team can improve and more | Three thoughts on the Duke game | Postgame video: Capel after the loss to Duke | Slideshow: Photos from Tuesday night's game

Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do about certain disadvantages.

On Tuesday night at the Petersen Events Center, the Pitt Panthers had a quite a few mismatches working against them while hosting No. 2 Duke. The Blue Devils were bigger and more talented at virtually every position, and those qualities played out over the course of 40 minutes as Duke handed Pitt a 79-64 loss.

But while the Panthers couldn’t get taller overnight, couldn’t instantly become lottery-pick players, there were things they could do to at least mitigate some of Duke’s advantages.

They could battle. They could put in extra effort. And, in a notion that is becoming a definition of this team under Jeff Capel, they could fight.

“Fighting, that’s just us,” senior Jared Wilson-Frame said after the game. “That’s something we pride ourselves on and that’s something that we live by. We see those four letters on our chest every day and to us, in our eyes, it says ‘Fight.’ It doesn’t even say ‘Pitt;’ it says the word ‘Fight’ on it.”

And Pitt did fight all the way to the bitter end, like when freshman Au’Diese Toney, who endured a brutal matchup with Duke super-freshman Zion Williamson, went to the ground to battle with a Duke player with 90 seconds left, forcing a held ball that gave the Panthers possession while trailing by close to 20.

That’s the kind of energy and drive Capel wants from his players on every play, and while it showed up in spurts on Tuesday night, it wasn’t consistent enough from start to finish. The Panthers were in the game for the first seven minutes, tying it at 11-11 and then taking a 16-15 lead at the 13-minute mark before Duke went on a 12-0 run to push the Panthers away for good.

“I thought we got off to a good start; obviously it was an amazing environment in there and I thought we fed off it early,” Capel said, referencing the capacity crowd at the Petersen Events Center that included hip-hop star Jay-Z. “And then we went through a stretch where we couldn’t score. Their zone bothered us, the size of it, the length of it, how they anticipate it and it really broke our rhythm offensively. In order to beat a team like Duke, you have to score, and we went through a long stretch there where we couldn’t score and we dug ourselves a hole.”

“It was us,” Wilson-Frame said. “We stopped being sharp and we stopped playing as hard. Once they started making a couple plays, it was like we took a punch and we didn’t want to punch back. As a collective group, we can’t be like that. So that was more on us than anything.”

That stood in contrast with the last two home games. In those contests, Pitt went blow-for-blow and then some against Louisville and Florida State to record the Panthers’ first ACC wins in nearly two years. But the blows from the Cardinals and Seminoles weren’t quite as jaw-shattering as those from the Blue Devils.

“It was the first time we got punched like that at home since the North Carolina game,” Wilson-Frame said.” Winning two games at home, kind of getting a little excited and you think it’s going to be that way every time and it’s not; it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, every night, every team in this league is good. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing the number-two team or an unranked team. We’re playing at home, we have to defend our home court regardless.”

Up next for the Panthers is a trip to Louisville for a rematch with the Cardinals on Saturday and a road trip to Clemson next Tuesday. They won’t be home again until Saturday, Feb. 2, when they’ll look to get one back against Syracuse after losing in the Carrier Dome this past weekend.

There are plenty of opportunities for this Pitt team (12-7 overall, 2-4 ACC) to put a few more notches in the win column this season, but the young roster will have to stick to the main emphasis and keep fighting.

“That’s the standard we have and that’s the culture we’re trying to create,” Wilson-Frame said Tuesday night, “so we’ll just get back to the drawing board and try to refocus. Because we had moments tonight when we weren’t fighting, when we didn’t see each other and look at each other in the eyes and know that we were all fighting. So we just have to be more connected.”