Senior Aron Phillips-Nwankwo walked off the Petersen Events Center for the final time with his hands on top of his head.
His Pitt Panthers career was over as the team fell 60-54 to George Washington in the first round of the NIT Tuesday.
“I know we’re a better team than we played, this is how we performed,” Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said. “We had good practices and the guys were excited about playing. Some of the decisions we made tonight are not what we normally do. The free throws wore on us not knocking them down. We had opportunities but it got to a stretch where we couldn’t make the shot.
“The seniors are struggling with the loss and what we had here. It’s tough because we’re not the team we thought we would be, but with that said, this is where we finished.
Leading the way for Pitt [19-15] was senior Cameron Wright who scored 11 points in his final game and Jamel Artis added 10 points and nine rebounds.
Kethan Savage made a big impact for George Washington [22–12] scoring 17 points off the bench while Patricio Garino added 14 points. Kevin Larsen added seven points and nine rebounds.
This game had two subtle differences to it as the shot clock, normally at 35 seconds, was dropped to 30 and the three-foot restricted area was increased to four feet. The teams struggled initially to find their rhythm as evidenced by a 7-6 GW lead just over five minutes into the game.
With the game tied at 10, the Panthers went on a 7-2 run to lead by five with 7:27 remaining in the first half. GW would quickly respond however going on a 10-0 run.
The Colonials led by as many as seven points in the first half and continued to hold the advantage with a 28-23 lead at halftime. GW was 2-7 from the free throw line in the first half, and Kethan Savage was the lone bench player to score points for the Colonials. Savage however had a team-high 14 first-half points. The Colonials 35.3 first half shooting percentage was also well below the Panthers 50 percent.
GW created first half separation with a 15-4 points off turnover margin and a 14-6 bench points advantage, thanks entirely to Savage.
The Colonials have had their second half struggles losing 33 points to opponents during Atlantic 10 conference play, however started the half as the aggressors making the first two baskets.
“Our problem going into the Virginia game where we were up four at the half and we lost by 17,” George Washington coach Mike Lonergan said. “When we struggle to score in the second half, we stop playing. We stop playing defense and we stop rebounding. That’s been a frustrating thing about this tonight. Tonight even when we had some scoring droughts, our guys still grinded it out defensively, found ways to get to the free throw line and got offensive rebounds.”
By the first media timeout, the GW lead was down to 36-34. Though Pitt would tie the game shortly after, George Washington quickly responded with an 8-0 run in the next 2:03 of game action.
“I feel like we had a lot of opportunities in the game to get it going and find our groove,” forward Michael Young said. “We had some uncharacteristic turnovers but if we change our turnovers this game would have had a different outcome.”
The Panthers scored the next two baskets cutting the Colonials lead to three points, however that was the only scoring for four minutes.
Pitt cut the score to 50-48 however George Washington was able to maintain control of the game to stretch the lead to 53-48.
The free throw line was unkind to both teams, however the difference between the two teams was that GW was able to rebound the basketball off its misses. For the game Pitt shot 8-18 from the foul line [44.4 percent] and George Washington 14-27 [51.9 percent]. Wright was 3-9 from the line for the Panthers. The percentage is a season worst for the Panthers.
The Panthers cut the Colonial lead to 55-53 with 1:06 to play but Savage drained a two-point basket. After a Wright turnover, Joe McDonald made two free throws for GW, extending the lead to six points with 22 seconds to play, putting the game out of reach after Josh Newkirk missed a jumper.
Pitt’s season is now over and Phillips-Nwankwo, Wright and Derrick Randall will not be back next season. The Panthers will return 81 percent of its scoring and 81 percent of its rebounding.
Dixon told the media following the game that defense needs to be more of a focal point in practices, and guard James Robinson said the team did not respond to various challenges throughout the season.
“I think we had a lot of adversity though out the course of the year and we need to learn how to take adversity and respond,” said Robinson. “We need to handle adversity better and not allow it to affect our play for long stretches.”