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Pittsburgh’s last chance for a quality regular season win slips through its fingers

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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James Robinson and Marcus Paige vie for a loose ball (USATSI)

When Pittsburgh lost its lone challenging non-league game by a point to Cincinnati on Dec. 17, the primary storyline that emerged was that the Panthers would enter ACC play without a quality win.

Who would have thought they would still be in search of their first noteworthy victory two months later?

Pittsburgh's 75-71 loss at North Carolina on Saturday afternoon guaranteed the Panthers will enter next month's ACC tournament without a win over an opponent in the top 40 in the RPI. No. 46 Stanford is the best team they beat in non-league play, No. 51 NC State is the best ACC opponent they've beaten and the Wolfpack are probably the best team left on Pittsburgh's schedule prior to the ACC tournament.

At this point, Pittsburgh is still an NCAA tournament team because of its 20-6 record and lack of bad losses, but the dearth of quality wins will surely hurt the Panthers' seeding at the very least. Barring a run in the ACC tournament, it's hard to imagine Pittsburgh securing anything better than a No. 8 or 9 seed on Selection Sunday.

To the Panthers' credit, they came close numerous times against some of the nation's elite teams, but they never managed to find a way to finish.

A Titus Rubles put-back with 4.2 seconds remaining cost them the Cincinnati game. A last-second go-ahead 3-pointer by Malcolm Brogdon doomed them at home against Virginia. And, of course, it was Tyler Ennis' running 35 footer at the buzzer that robbed Pittsburgh of an upset victory over top-ranked Syracuse earlier this week.

There was no buzzer-beating heart break for Pittsburgh on Saturday, but that probably didn't make the loss in Chapel Hill any less frustrating. The Panthers had numerous chances despite failing to take away most of North Carolina's strengths on offense.

The only North Carolina player shooting better than 31 percent from behind the arc is Marcus Paige, yet Pittsburgh somehow left him free often enough to bury five of six 3-pointers. The Panthers also didn't limit the Tar Heels' transition opportunities or keep James Michael McAdoo off the offensive boards, two keys for every North Carolina opponent.

McAdoo had 24 points and 12 rebounds and was a terror around the rim. He has scored in double figures every game since Dec. 7 and has 16 or more in five of the games in North Carolina's current six-game win streak.

Despite the performance of McAdoo and Paige, Pittsburgh still had numerous chances to secure a win. The Panthers rallied from seven down in the final minute, but Lamar Patterson missed an open 3-pointer off an inbound pass that would have tied the game with nine seconds left and Talib Zanna's put-back also was off target as well.

And with that, Pittsburgh's last chance for a quality regular season win slipped through its fingers.

Games against Florida State, Boston College, Notre Dame, NC State and Clemson are all that remains on the Panthers' schedule. All they can do now until the ACC tournament is try to avoid any bad losses that would sink their NCAA tournament seeding even further.

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