If Pitt was overwhelmed by the emotion generated by Notre Dame coach Mike Brey’s final home game, the Panthers picked a bad time for a letdown. Whatever the reason, the result was a damaging — and embarrassing — 88-81 loss to the Irish on Wednesday night in South Bend, Ind.
The Irish (11-19, 3-16 ACC) led by as many as 20 points, 61-41, with 11 minutes, 36 seconds left in the game. Pitt cut the lead to 84-79 with 38 seconds to play, but crawled no closer.
“We knew it was going to be tough for the juice they were having from coach Brey’s last game,” Pitt assistant coach Milan Brown said on the 93.7 The Fan postgame show. “Not until the last 10 minutes of the second half that we just went after them. Unfortunate, but we have to take our lumps and learn. The guys knew what was at stake and we just didn’t come up big.”
It was the first game for Pitt after it was ranked for the first time this season (No. 25) in the Associated Press Top 25.
At one point in the second half while Notre Dame was exerting its dominance, ACC Network commentator Jordan Cornette said, “It’s too easy. It’s just too easy.”
Pitt (21-9, 14-5) wasted an opportunity to gain a share of the ACC regular-season championship and nail down the coveted double bye in the conference tournament next week. If Pitt loses at Miami on Saturday night, the Panthers could fall to a No. 5 seed and be forced to win four games in four days to win the tournament.
The Panthers are in a three-way tie for first place with Miami and Virginia.
Meanwhile, Brey recorded his 483rd victory in 23 years.
Pitt struggled in all facets of the game but especially in two areas where the Panthers had been strong in the first 29 games: shooting from the free-throw line (20 of 36, 55.6%) and the 3-point arc (7 of 22, 31.8%). In the first 29 games, Pitt had made 77.1% of its free throws (38 of 42 in the previous two games). Before Wednesday, Pitt had been 35.9% from beyond the arc.
“You have to make them pay and capitalize on the free-throw line,” Brown said. “You miss 16 free throw in a game that’s decided by seven points. Just one of those uncharacteristic nights.”
Nelly Cummings, Nike Sibande and Jamarius Burton led Pitt with 19 points each. Blake Hinson recorded a double-double (15 points, 13 rebounds). Cummings scored 12 of Pitt’s last 16 points.
Five Notre Dame players reached double digits, led by Marcus Hammond and Cormac Ryan (20 each). Nate Laszewski and Trey Wertz had 14 each and Dane Goodwin 12.
Nothing worked for Pitt, but the Panthers’ efforts went from bad to worse late in the first half and they were down 42-28 at intermission. The total represented the second-most points Notre Dame scored in the first half of an ACC game this season.
The game was close for most of the first half until Notre Dame finished with an 11-0 run while Pitt was scoreless in the final four minutes.
Pitt’s defense allowed too many open looks for the Irish, who shot 51.9% from the field (14 of 27), 7 of 15 beyond the 3-point arc and 7 of 8 from the free-throw line in the first half. “We got beat on a couple switches,” Brown said. “I think some of the things that happened to us defensively bled into our offense.”
Pitt came into the game with a school-record 274 made 3-pointers, but the Panthers missed 12 of 15 in the first half. Hinson, Burton and Sibande scored nine, eight and seven points, but overall Pitt made only 35.3% of its shots (12 of 34).
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at email@example.com or via Twitter