Pitt’s first true test of the season came against No. 9 Gonzaga, but a slippery court caused a cancellation in a game where Pitt held a 37-35 lead at halftime.
Last night, the No. 11 Purdue Boilermakers came into Pittsburgh, representing an unusual highly ranked non-conference opponent in the Peterson Events Center. Of course, this game was part of the ACC/ Big Ten Challenge, as Pitt traveled to Indiana last season and hosted Penn State the season prior.
Purdue came out of the gate red-hot from the three-point line, building a substantial 24-7 lead in the first half.
Pitt cut the lead to only 29-26 at halftime, and the Panthers battled all the way back from a 17-point deficit, as a James Robinson jumper gave Pitt their first and only lead at 44-43 with 12:21 to play.
A three-pointer by Purdue freshman guard Ryan Cline put the Boilermakers back in front. Sheldon Jeter scored to draw Pitt within only 1 point (50-49), but then Cline buried three more threes, which essentially sealed the fate of the Panthers with an 11-1 run and a 72-59 Purdue victory.
Cline finished as runner-up for the player of the year in Indiana basketball last year, behind Purdue teammate Caleb Swanigan.
Robinson indicated, “We had some mental mistakes. We left him open in the corner and he hit the shots.”
As I was in the stands for the game, you could hear a collective groaning from Pitt fans when Cline was wide open in the corners and about to take a three-point shot attempt.
Purdue head coach Matt Painter with some high praise on Cline, “He’s the best shooter I’ve ever been around.”
He certainly gave Purdue (7-0) a huge boost after blowing a 17-point lead, as well as a lift from foul trouble by 7-foot-2 Ivan Drago-like center Isaac Haas and a minor knee injury that kept senior guard and last year’s Big Ten defensive player of the year Rapheal Davis out.
Haas came into the game as Purdue’s leading scorer, but he only play 9 minutes with 6 points. No starter scored double digits for Purdue, but Cline, who averages 5.3 ppg, came off the bench to add 12.
Pitt had no match for 7-0 senior center A.J. Hammons, who finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds on 10 of 15 shooting. He even knocked down a three-pointer late in the game.
Purdue shot 43.6% from the field (24 for 55), whereas Pitt shot a season low of 35.1% (20 of 57). Purdue buried 11 of 28 three-point attempts (39.3%), while Pitt only shot 4 of 19 (21.1%).
Pitt graduate transfer Raphael Maia contributed defensively with two steals and a blocked shot to get Pitt back into the game, and he drew loud applauses from the Panther faithful.
The senior point guard Robinson led Pitt (4-1) with 17 points, while junior forward Michael Young added 16 points and 12 rebounds. Jamel Artis was held to 8 points, while Sheldon Jeter added 7 points off the bench.
Jamie Dixon cannot use rebounding or turnovers as a reason for the loss in this one. Both teams were fairly even. The Panthers failed to make wide open shots, especially three-pointers.
This was Purdue’s smallest margin of victory, having beaten every opponent by at least 15 points. The Boilermakers lead the country in defensive field goal percentage, but Pitt helped that cause by missing several wide open shots.
Purdue has won seven straight games in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, handing Pitt its 5th loss in 127 nonconference games at home. This was not the traditional creampuff that we have seen former Athletic Director Steve Pederson schedule at home.
Like it or not, I think Pitt has to become more aggressive in nonconference scheduling. I was glad that Purdue was scheduled to come here as part of the Challenge. A loss to the No. 11 team in the country does not hurt a team’s resume, and it can only expose Pitt to some of the top talent in college basketball. Having played Gonzaga and Purdue, Pitt has now faced two of the biggest front lines in college hoops.
I believe that this game can be taken as a prime example of Pitt needing to knock down wide open shots, not fall into a large deficit early, and not collapse down the stretch when momentum is on their side. Easier said than done, but Pitt fans should be hopeful for a successful season this year.
Pitt will square off against Duquesne in the annual city game at Consol Energy Center on Friday.