Pitt men rebound from slow start, pounding state of Alabama

Similar to most teams that play power conference basketball, Pitt’s roster has many players who can run, jump, pass and shoot at a high level.

The trick that good teams master is to connect the mental with the physical.

That’s what Pitt coach Jeff Capel and his players faced Sunday afternoon, and they overcame what he described as “fragile confidence” and a slow start to defeat Alabama State, 73-54, at the Petersen Events Center .

Pitt scored nearly 52% in the second half and put on a 33-5 run after halftime. Pitt (2-3) defeated a winless (0-5) HBCU team on a nearly two-month road trip.

“We’re not playing a home game until January 2nd,” said coach Tony Madlock. “It’s part of HBCU life. We love it. We accept it.”

Still, the Hornets built a 30-18 lead with 5 minutes and 49 seconds left in the first half, and Capel wondered how his team would react to that kind of adversity, especially after ending the season with three losses in four games had opened.

“We got beaten pretty well in two of them (West Virginia and Michigan) and we had an opportunity and just couldn’t finish the last two minutes of the last game (VCU),” he said.

“It does something to your psyche. We as employees tried to be optimistic about them. But as a player you feel it. You start to get tight. You start to panic. You start to overthink. Sometimes you get a little scared.

“Then if you have (an opponent) playing house money, they don’t have that. There are no expectations.

He told his team, “Stop shooting like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.”

“I could see we were hoping instead of just shooting,” he said.

But Pitt fought back those mental demons and ended up with a decisive win, beating Alabama State 42-20 in the final 20 minutes.

The Panthers won without senior guard Jamarius Burton (inflammation of the knee), a limping Greg Elliott (who still had more than 18 minutes to play) and junior William Jeffress. Capel said after the game that Jeffress will have toe surgery and is likely lost for the season.

Several players rose, including Blake Hinton, who led the Panthers with 18 points, and Nike Sibande, who added 17 from the bench. Freshman Jorge Diaz Graham started and had nine points with eight rebounds, two assists and two blocks. Nelly Cummings contributed 10 points and five assists.

But the best news was the return of center John Hugley, who played on Wednesday after missing the last six weeks (knee), injured his other knee on Thursday and did not play on Sunday.

But Hugley’s title as the team’s best player is no coincidence. He played nearly 19 minutes and nearly had a double-double (10 points, nine rebounds, six offense).

“John came in and gave us a jerk,” Capel said.

Hinson and Hugley led a comeback late in the first half that cut Alabama State’s lead to 34-31 at halftime. In the second half, Pitt wasted little time gaining complete control.

“I’m proud of our boys, how we reacted, especially after we failed in the first half,” said Capel. “In my opinion, we defended at a very high level in the second half.”

Capel said the 6-foot-9 Hugley gives the Panthers that vital presence in the paint.

“He’s out for six weeks. He’s not in the state he needs to be,” Capel said. “We have to play it in batches. The better his condition gets, the better he gets.”

Hugley will have ample opportunity to get in shape. Pitt will play three more games in seven days against Fairleigh Dickinson starting Tuesday.

“We’re a little bit done with all these games coming back-to-back,” Capel said. “[It]wasn’t wise planning on my part.”

Jerry DiPaola is a contributor to Tribune-Review. You can contact Jerry via email at [email protected] or via Twitter .