Pitt Tops Virginia for Early Scramble In ACC Race

Ken Cross

January 05, 2023 at 2:05 pm.

Since 2016, the Pitt Panthers’ arrival into the ACC Basketball wars has been generally a tough endeavor.

The Pitt athletic department found the right hire in former Oklahoma and VCU head coach Jeff Capel. He was able to build both the Sooners and Rams to higher levels before going back to Duke as Mike Krzyzewski’s assistant from 2011-2018.

Capel played college basketball at Duke in the mid-1990s, so his focus on all of the potential nuances of a college program has been well-defined in his effort as a solid rebuilder of programs.

Capel’s rebuild at Pittsburgh has seen the Panthers take a major step forward with Saturday’s 76-74 win over North Carolina just three days before Tuesday night’s 68-65 decision over No. 11 Virginia.

The Panthers fought back in both of those games to claims ‘Ws’ as they now are now 4-0 and tied for first place in the ACC with Miami.

“I’m happy for Jeff because he’s a good man,” said Virginia head coach Tony Bennett, who noted his discouragement about the Cavaliers’ performance. “He’s a good coach. He’s been a victim of stuff that is troubling, in terms of losing players, but he coaches the right way.”

Virginia controlled the first half as the Cavs were only tied once and they went ahead by double digits when Reed Beekman nailed a three to give them a 23-12 lead with 6:08 remaining before halftime.

Kaden Shedrick slammed a dunk with 4:39 left in the first half as the Cavaliers took a 27-14 lead. 

Capel talked about how opponents have to keep themselves mentally and physically tough throughout a basketball game in order to compete and eventually defeat Virginia.

“You have to be together and you have to fight, and I thought we did that,” said Capel. “Once we got into the rhythm of the game, in the second half we were really able to do some really good things and everyone on our team stepped up.”

Blake Hinson and Nike Sibande were able to solidify the game for the Panthers as they led with 16 points each while guard Jamarius Burton netted 15.

“For me, I have to be careful because at times, he (Hinson) doesn’t take great shots,” explained Capel. “I have to be okay with that because there are other times where he will make shots that make us look good as coaches.”

Pittsburgh made 16-of-32 two-point shots and the Panthers also outscored Virginia, 7-0, on the glass.

“They were touching the paint pretty easy in transition and even when we were back,” said Bennett. “They get aggressive and have physical and tough-minded guys.”

The top story of the game could have been point guard Nelly Cummings, who had eight assists with no turnovers in 34 minutes. Nike Sabande continually gave Pitt a lift as the Panthers stayed connected despite making only 8-of-25 field goal attempts in the first half.

Pittsburgh finally took control and put itself in position to win with a 14-0 run that spanned 5:12 in the second half as Hinson scored on a layup for a 46-44 lead.

After Hinson hit a three to give Pittsburgh its biggest lead at 51-47, Virginia worked hard to put itself back in position to win.

Kihei Clark hit a three and Beekman converted a conventional one-and-one to give the Cavaliers their lead again, 53-51, with 7:15 remaining.

Hinson then gave Pitt a 58-55 lead with 4:50 remaining on his second triple of the evening.

Virginia guard Kihei Clark led all scorers with 17 points as he dished eight assists. Pitt shot 51.7 percent from the floor in the second half which allowed Capel’s squad to end an eight-game losing streak to the Cavaliers.

“We’ve defended well and the thing we have to do is be more connected,” said Capel. “I thought in the second half, we were just way more connected on both sides of the floor. The numbers don’t say it in the second half, but we forced more turnovers. We changed some coverages and how we wanted to defend them and the guys did it well.”