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Before reality draped itself over Petersen Events Center on Saturday, Pitt's four seniors walked proudly to center court with their families.
They didn't know it at the time, but the smiles worn by Jamel Artis, Michael Young, Sheldon Jeter and Chris Jones eventually would disappear, swallowed by an 85-67 loss to North Carolina.
Senior day gained further significance when former assistant Brandin Knight, a hero and mentor to many Pitt players, showed up unannounced. On a day off from his job as a Rutgers assistant, Knight came to honor players he helped recruit and develop.
“One of the many guys I looked up to here at Pitt,” senior Jamel Artis said.
Sadly, he added, “I wish I could have got a win for him.”
Knight's appearance and late word from Port Charlotte, Fla., that coach Kevin Stallings' son Jacob homered for the Pirates in an exhibition game were the only pieces of good news as this season of misery approaches the end.
With two road games before the ACC Tournament, Pitt (15-14, 4-12) is on the brink of its first losing season since 1999-2000, former coach Ben Howland's first season. Pitt is assured of finishing among the bottom six in the ACC, guaranteeing a first-round game March 7.
“I feel bad for our seniors,” Stallings said. “I certainly didn't want them to go out in this fashion.”
Actually, the game wasn't a rout from the outset. Pitt led 17-11 with 12 minutes, 44 seconds left in the first half and trailed 30-28 only 3:13 before halftime.
But in the midst of a 10-0 North Carolina run to end the first half, Pitt senior Chris Jones was called for an offensive foul that wiped out a basket and triggered Stallings' rage at officials. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels kept scoring.
No. 8 North Carolina (25-5, 13-3) led 40-28 at halftime, and Pitt never got closer than eight in the second half.
But Stallings was clear that officiating had nothing to do with the outcome, even though senior Sheldon Jeter was in foul trouble throughout his last home game. He played 17 minutes and scored just seven points.
Jeter scored 29 last week against Florida State's bigger, slower front line, and Stallings was hoping for something similar to counter North Carolina's height advantage and pull 6-foot-10 Kennedy Meeks from the basket.
“I'm not saying if Sheldon hadn't been in foul trouble, we'd have won the game. Believe me, I'm not,” Stallings said. “But that was one way we felt like we could attack them, and that was out the window about five minutes into the game.”
In the end, Pitt had no answer for North Carolina's front line. The Tar Heels came into the game with a 13.4 rebounding margin that is second-highest in the nation since 1980. They improved upon that with a 48-28 edge, including 24 offensive.
At one point in the second half, North Carolina had as many offensive rebounds (22) as Pitt had on both ends of the floor.
“They are literally longer than us at every position except for the point guard spot,” Stallings said. “We can sit here and lament whether we didn't box out hard enough, but there's just a time when the ball is up in the air, and they're better at getting it than we are. They'll be better tomorrow at getting it than we are, and they were better yesterday at getting it than we are. They're better than everybody in the country.”
If Pitt tried too hard to defend the paint, where North Carolina had a season-high 42 points and 28 second-chance points, forward Justin Jackson owned the perimeter. He led all scorers with 23 points, including 5 of 11 3-point shots.
“We didn't have an answer in either spot,” Stallings said.
“We would get them to miss, but they would get second and third tries and get them in the basket. Eventually, not only does it get you in foul trouble, but it breaks your spirit and breaks you down.”
Stallings promises to keep looking for answers and knows he has a lot of work to do to find them.
After he called his son to congratulate him on the home run, he planned to spend Saturday night watching tape of Georgia Tech, Pitt's opponent Tuesday.
“We are not sitting here at 4-12 because we are the deepest, most talented team in the league,” he said.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.
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