PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh has spent the better part of a decade as an afterthought. Bottoming out in the Atlantic Coast Conference will do that.
The program’s long, slow rise back to relevance under Jeff Capel appears to finally be gaining traction.
The latest proof came in a 71-68 victory over No. 20 Miami on Saturday, a game that required a stirring late rally, a handful of defensive stops and something intangible but just as important: belief.
Blake Hinson tipped in a Jamarius Burton miss with 31 seconds to go to put Pitt (15-7, 8-3) in front and the Panthers forced the Hurricanes (16-5, 7-4) into a flurry of late miscues to earn their third win over a ranked opponent this season.
“I have so much appreciation for this team and what we’re doing,” said Burton, who finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three steals, two of them in the final minute.
Burton is one of the few holdovers from a group that shuffled through an 11-win season a year ago, usually in front of a sparse crowd at the Petersen Events Center. Capel retooled through the transfer portal in the offseason, and after a sluggish start Pitt has recovered to win 14 of 17 while building a resume that could have it in NCAA tournament consideration for the first time since 2016.
This may have been the most improbable of the bunch.
Miami led by as much as 11 and went up 68-60 on a Norchad Omier dunk with 2:26 to go. The Hurricanes wouldn’t score again as Pitt closed on an 11-0 run.
“We obviously don’t want turnovers,” Miami coach Jim Larrañaga said. “A couple of times we thought we had great opportunities to finish the play and we didn’t.”
Jordan Miller led the Hurricanes with 18 points. Isaiah Wong added 14 but Miami committed three of its 12 turnovers in the final 35 seconds as the Panthers stormed back.
Burton stripped Wong with 35 seconds left and raced downcourt. His layup bounced out but Hinson followed to give the Panthers their first lead since the middle of the first half.
Wong attempted to back Burton down in the lane but Burton wrested the ball free. Pitt turned it over on the ensuing inbounds but Miami’s Wooga Poplar gave it away. Greg Elliott made two free throws at the other end with 2.5 seconds to go and Wong’s last-second heave was short as the first sellout crowd at Pitt since 2019 erupted.
The finish perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise. Pitt is 5-1 in conference play in games decided by three points or less, as a group thrown together over the summer — many of them making essentially their last stand as college players — has organically gelled into a selfless and cohesive unit.
“I think the belief is there, it’s strong,” Capel said. “They believe in each other more than anything and as a coach, that’s really cool to see.”
Miami: The experienced Hurricanes seemed firmly in control for long stretches but their inability to execute in the final seconds was surprising for a team that reached the Elite Eight last season.
Pittsburgh: On a day the program honored the 2003 team that won the school’s first Big East championship, the current Panthers borrowed a page from that storied group’s book and used suffocating defense down the stretch to win.
A conference title for Pitt may be asking a bit much, but they have forced their way into the NCAA tournament conversation, a welcome change for a program that’s been synonymous with losing since Jamie Dixon left for TCU in the spring of 2016.
Miami: Hosts Virginia Tech on Tuesday.
Pittsburgh: Visits North Carolina on Wednesday. The Panthers beat the Tar Heels at home on Dec. 30.
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