North Carolina knew exactly what Pitt was going to bring.
The Panthers clawed their way back to win the season’s first meeting in December — a contest in which Pittsburgh led for less than four minutes.
In what turned into a fiery affair — featuring an assortment of individual muscle flexes and a double technical foul — the Tar Heels came up short yet again Wednesday night, 65-64.
“It’s always a close game with them,” senior forward Armando Bacot said. “They just don’t quit, and they don’t give up. They go down, and they just keep chipping away and chipping away.”
It didn’t take long for the Panthers to unleash their feisty play.
After junior guard RJ Davis tightly defended Pitt's Nelly Cummings for the near duration of the shot clock, the shifty guard found a crease behind a ball screen. Cummings swished home the 3-point shot and proceeded to flash a trio of fingers as he waltzed — and talked — his way down the court.
The Panthers extended their confident play inside the post. Using an array of primary defenders, Pittsburgh forced Bacot to receive entry passes multiple feet from the paint. In the first half, the center only converted one of his five field goal attempts.
“(Pittsburgh) had like four bodies in there, and they just kept throwing bodies at me,” Bacot said. “I guess you can say they kind of wore me down.”
While North Carolina’s top scorer struggled, Caleb Love began to light it up from distance.
The junior guard connected on his first two 3-pointers en route to scoring a game-high 22 points. Love got in on the mix of antics early in the second half, holding a staredown and exchanging words with Nike Sibande after Love finished a layup through the contact of two Panthers
Bacot quickly followed up the act after drawing a foul on Jamarius Burton. The two partook in a heated conversation that extended past the time Bacot lined up at the foul stripe and continued in between the two free throw attempts.
Even graduate transfer forward Pete Nance joined in on the antics, holding an aggressive flex down the court following a finish through traffic.
“I think that was just the nature of the game at that point — there was a lot of talking going on and stuff,” Nance said. “So I think I definitely just got excited — definitely probably out of character — but that was just the intensity level of the game.”
Even understanding Pittsburgh’s scrappy brand of play and North Carolina’s visual displays of tenacity, head coach Hubert Davis said his team never maintained the necessary level of grit on a consistent basis.
“Since Pitt has joined the ACC, they’ve always — whomever the coach was — hung their hat on their toughness and their physicality,” he said. “I told (my team) that in a game like this, you’re going to get towed and there’s nowhere to go, and you’re going to have to competitively fight. I felt like we did (fight) at times, but at times we didn’t sustain it.”
The animosity on Pitt’s side was clear, from Pittsburgh assistant coach Jason Capel shouting expletives outside the Panthers’ locker room in the postgame, to Pitt's Blake Hinson blowing kisses to fans darting for the Smith Center exits following UNC’s loss. It was Burton’s physicality that set up the game-winning free throws with under four seconds left.
North Carolina played into Pittsburgh’s style of game, but on Wednesday, the Panthers put up more of a fight.
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