PITTSBURGH (AP) – Pittsburgh is running out of time, and Jamie Dixon knows it.
The enigmatic Panthers (16-9, 5-7 ACC) missed a chance at a resume-building win at No. 9 Louisville on Wednesday when a six-point lead with 10 minutes to go evaporated into a seemingly one-sided 13-point loss. Another opportunity awaits – as they always seem to in the arguably the nation’s best conference – on Saturday when No. 12 North Carolina visits.
A win and Pitt’s NCAA prospects are alive, as marginal as they seem at the moment. Another late-game implosion like the one they endured on the road against the Cardinals and the Panthers are likely to spend March outside the madness for just the second time in his 12 years on the job.
“We know that we can’t give away opportunities and you’ve got to take care of business and that one game doesn’t ruin you but one game doesn’t make you at the same time,” Dixon said.
Maybe, but with trips to No. 2 Virginia and Syracuse awaiting next week Pitt can’t afford any more missteps at home.
“We’ve put ourselves in position where we’ve got to win some games down the stretch,” Dixon said. “No one can fall apart here at the end. We’re in position. We’ve got some good wins but quality wins are what we need to have and what we need to do.”
The Tar Heels (18-6, 9-3) haven’t played since beating Boston College last Saturday, a scheduling quirk that let the program and the university catch its breath during an emotionally draining week that included the death of retired Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith at age 83 and the murder of a UNC graduate student, his wife and her sister.
“It’s just tough for the Chapel Hill community,” sophomore guard Nate Britt said of the past week. “As a player, it’s kind of tough because you’ve got so many things going on and we have a big game coming up. It’s just been kind of tough on everyone.”
UNC will wear patches bearing Smith’s initials on its jerseys Saturday, a small tribute to the man who led the Tar Heels to 11 Final Fours and two national titles.
The Panthers beat North Carolina 80-75 in last year’s ACC tournament, perhaps the highlight of a 26-10 season. Building off that momentum, however, has been difficult. Pitt has played the entire season without swingman Durand Johnson, suspended for a year after violating NCAA rules. Senior Cameron Wright missed the first seven games with a foot injury and sat out the loss to Louisville with a sprained ankle, though Dixon is optimistic the team captain will be ready to play the long and athletic Tar Heels.
Pitt will need every available body to stay close. The Panthers appeared overmatched when things got serious against the Cardinals, who went on a 22-2 run late in the second half when surly forward Montrezl Harrell simply took over. Pitt forward Sheldon Jeter said the Panthers did not fight back when Harrell started flexing his considerable muscles.
“I wouldn’t say it was intimidation,” Jeter said. “I would just say – scratch that. I would say it was intimidation.”
It’s a notion Dixon tried to dismiss even while he allows there is a certain level of physicality his team lacks. Pitt has struggled keeping teams out of the paint regardless of pedigree, getting outscored in the lane against the likes of Bryant University, a Northeastern Conference school that nearly upset the Panthers two weeks ago. Pitt’s last four opponents have shot 50 percent or better from the field. And while the Panthers were able to win three of those games with solid play at the other end of the floor, it’s not the way Dixon would prefer his team get the job done.
“Every team, even great defensive teams go through stretches where the other team shoots well,” he said. “We know what our weakness is. It’s pretty obvious. Especially when you compare it to other teams in the past here.”
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, N.C., contributed to this report.