Pitt, sprinting toward possible NCAA Tournament bid, knocks out Wake Forest


WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Blake Hinson sprinted down the crowded corridor just off the Capital One Arena court — the one, at present, three-deep with camera people and various ACC officials — he found his Pittsburgh teammates waiting for him. Specifically, one teammate: Ish Leggett, who stood palms up, holding a flimsy plastic placard bearing Pitt’s logo. Leggett was seconds from slapping that placard onto the large ACC tournament banner in the corridor … but he couldn’t do so until Hinson arrived. Until Pitt’s entire team was there.

Until, first, he held it up to Hinson and asked his teammate for a favor:

“Bless this b—.”

Hinson gladly obliged, rubbing his hands over the plastic square like it was a raging bonfire. A sufficient blessing, indeed. Because Leggett wasted no more time; he rotated the logo, grabbed it around the edges, and proudly plastered it onto the wall in one of four semifinalist spaces.

To the victors go the spoils. And after Pitt’s 81-69 win over Wake Forest on Thursday, those spoils are a Friday night ACC semifinal appearance, only the program’s second ever. (It’s been a decade since Pitt’s last one, too, a 2014 loss to Virginia.) Thursday’s contest was, for lack of a better term, an NCAA play-out game. The winner may not be firmly in the field, but the loser would definitely be out.

“When you get to this point of the season,” coach Jeff Capel said, “you want to have the opportunity to keep playing — and we feel very fortunate we get to.”

But fortune had nothing to do with it. Pitt earned that win, as much as it earned the league’s No. 4 seed (and the coveted double-bye that comes with it), despite a 1-5 start in ACC play.

And in the process? Capel’s team has earned its way back onto the NCAA Tournament bubble. At this point, the Panthers are the ACC’s best hope for a fifth team in the Big Dance. (Or maybe a fourth, depending on how the selection committee views Virginia.) Win on Friday vs. top-seeded North Carolina, and there will be no doubt. Even without that one, Capel’s squad has made its most convincing case possible; since Jan. 20, it has beaten Duke at Cameron Indoor, Virginia, and now Wake Forest twice.

“All we know is the more games we win, the more chances we get to get a bid,” Hinson said. “You get an automatic (berth) if you win the tournament, so that’s our only focus.”

That Jan. 20 date is important because it was the Panthers’ marquee win this year, a four-point victory over a team with — depending on when you visit the Caesar’s sportsbook next to the arena — favorable Final Four odds. Or, at least that’s how it is viewed externally. Within Pitt’s locker room — the one where “Pittsburgh Tough” is written in black marker in the lower right corner of the team whiteboard — there was always belief, even amidst that 1-5 league start, that things would turn around. Much of that hope was rooted in the long-term development of the team’s two-star freshmen: Carlton “Bub” Carrington, and Jaland Lowe.

Against Wake Forest on Thursday? Those two combined for 20 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists.

“Our young guys matured. They got stronger. Their mindsets changed, too. Like we said at the beginning of the year, with time, we’re going to get better,” forward Guillermo Diaz Graham said. “I think we’ve kind of figured it out.”

It shows. Per BartTorvik’s sorting tool, since that win over Duke, Pitt is a top-25 team nationally, with an adjusted offensive efficiency that ranks 19th. Lowe and Carrington — the latter of whom may be a first-round NBA Draft pick this summer — have been key there, but they don’t have to do it alone. Hinson, for instance, is a senior All-ACC wing, another future pro who dropped 20 points and four 3-pointers on the Deacons on Thursday. There’s also Graham, a 7-footer who also shoots 39.5 percent from 3.

And on Thursday, most importantly, there was Leggett, the ACC’s freshly-minted Sixth Man of the Year. The DMV native and Rhode Island transfer — who played in this arena as a 12-year-old and during his A-10 days, but who had never won here — was sensational vs. Wake Forest, dropping a season-high 30 points off the bench. He also had eight rebounds, five steals, and made all six of his free throws. “I’m just a we-before-me type of guy,” Leggett said. Capel was asked postgame if he’s ever had a player perform like that off the bench, across the entirety of his 15-year head coaching career.

“I’m not sure,” Capel said. “He was outstanding.”

But so was his entire team. This was not a blowout, even if the final score suggests so. Wake Forest, despite trailing by as many as 19, cut the game to within three with minutes left in the second half. But in a late timeout, the Panthers’ resilience was obvious. Once Capel had finished detailing a play, associate head coach Tim O’Toole pointed his fingers at his players and asked bluntly: “Who wants it?”

Pitt immediately responded, outsourcing Wake Forest 12-5 the rest of the way.

Which was more than enough of a margin. Cut to the crowded corridor postgame, Hinson parting the mob of reporters like Moses to the Red Sea. After Leggett slapped Pitt’s logo onto the tournament bracket, the Panthers not-so-subtly moved their party down the hall, into their locker room.

But their logo remained. Fittingly, less than a foot from another open space: this one, for the tournament finals.

(Photo of Carlton Carrington: Justin Cooper / AP)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top