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Finding a way to win at BC may be just what Pittsburgh needs

January 8, 2015 Columns No Comments

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Sometimes you need to win a game you seemingly have no business winning based on how you play. When that happens, it can be a big boost, and for Pittsburgh, that boost may come at the right time from Tuesday’s 61-60 overtime win at Boston College.

Normally, eking out a win over a so-so Boston College team, even on the road, isn’t a big one for a team. That’s especially true for a team like Pittsburgh, which has been a fixture in the NCAA Tournament for over a decade. When you’re coming off a game where the offense was as bad as it’s been all year, though, and struggle again for most of the night and don’t play well enough to win all along, the story changes.

“I think this thing is good for us,” said Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon. “I think this is going to help us.”

Pittsburgh shot just 38 percent on the night, including 1-8 from long range, and turned the ball over 13 times. They were coming off a loss at NC State where they shot a season-low 32.7 percent. Tuesday marked the fourth time they shot below 40 percent from the field, but unlike the first three times, they won this game despite BC shooting over 40 percent from the field. Pittsburgh’s big statistical area was a 22-4 edge in second-chance points on 16 offensive rebounds. That, and down the stretch, BC did just about everything wrong in coughing up a ten-point lead in the final 3:04 of regulation.

This isn’t the kind of juggernaut Pittsburgh team that Dixon had early in his tenure. This Panthers team lacks a star and is the product of balance, as well as a number of players who can be “the man” on a given night, but won’t necessarily be that every game. Dixon knew this team couldn’t think they were just going to walk into Conte Forum and get a win, even though they have dominated the series in recent times as they have now won the last eight meetings and 12 of the last 13, along with owning an 11-4 mark in Conte Forum.

This is also a younger team, as they start three sophomores, a junior and a senior. Cameron Wright and Derrick Randall are the only scholarship seniors, and they were without Wright for the first seven games of the season. While they are 7-1 in games Wright has played, he isn’t irreplaceable, which was clear on Tuesday night as he played just 19 minutes since others were playing more effectively.

Evidence of how balanced this team is came on Tuesday, with the bench accounting for a 30-13 edge in scoring, but that wasn’t all. Josh Newkirk scored the winning basket by darting around a defender for a layup, capping off a night where he scored 15 points on 6-9 shooting and had seven assists with one turnover. He’s been a quietly good player for them all season, but especially in the last eight games where he has 36 assists with just 12 turnovers. Sheldon Jeter gave them 30 big minutes with 11 points and eight rebounds.

“He’s now in the rotation, we’ve got to find the minutes,” Dixon said of Jeter, who transferred from Vanderbilt. “Defensively, he’s improved dramatically, he’s worked hard, he’s earned it. We’ve had a lot of conversations. We need him out there. He gives the athleticism. Finding the right position for him has been a challenge, but he’s going to be out there.”

Tuesday’s win also helps because this team is still figuring some things out. With Wright healthy, they know who they’ll have the rest of the season, assuming no injuries or long suspensions, and the lineup is shaking out as we speak as well. Jeter’s emergence and Dixon’s subsequent need to get him more minutes and figure out exactly what his position and role should be serves as a prime example of that.

Unlike past Pittsburgh teams, this one is actually well-tested away from home. Before playing six straight at home to close out the non-conference portion of the schedule (the Panthers do have one more non-conference game mixed in on February 2 against Bryant), Pittsburgh played six straight away from home, with four being at neutral sites and two being true road games. For about a month, they didn’t play a game at home, which is their longest stretch between games at the Peterson Events Center since it opened in 2002.

Now the Panthers get a chance to play at home. Seven of the next nine games and eight of the next 11 are in Pittsburgh, so they have a chance to get some momentum going. Tuesday night’s win could be the start of just that, as they can play better than they did and it was enough to win a game they should have lost.

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