Once again, Tennessee showed they can play with the big boys and failed to show they can beat them. The ending was a microcosm of the first month of the season, as the Vols came back from a 58-50 deficit with under a minute to play, thanks to a fortuitous elbow from Ashton Gibbs and some poor free throw shooting from Pittsburgh, and had the ball with a chance to tie or win at the end. But then came the ever frustrating moment of youth. Jeronne Maymon set a high screen, and Trae Golden, in a split second of indecision, ran into him, bobbled the ball, and allowed Pitt a tie-up. The Panthers received the ball on the alternate possession with under four seconds to go, Tennessee couldn't get a steal, and Pittsburgh hit a bucket and foul shot to extend the final margin to 61-56.
The game looked hopeless with 49 seconds to play, but Ashton Gibbs inadvertently elbowed Trae Golden on an inbounds play and was called for a flagrant foul, giving the Vols two free throws and the ball. Golden made just one free throw, but a driving layup from Cameron Tatum cut Pittsburgh's lead to 58-53.
Tennessee caught another break when Pittsburgh missed the front end of a one and one, but Cameron Tatum missed a three point shot that could've cut the lead to two. However, on the ensuing possession, Pittsburgh missed the front end of another one and one, and Trae Golden buried a deep three to cut the lead to 58-56.
With under 15 seconds to play, Pittsburgh missed the front end of yet a third one and one, allowing Tennessee a final possession for the lead, but, as happened so many times last season, the Vols were sunk by a poor final possession.
Tennessee's defense and inside game made big strides this evening, but the story of the game was an inability to hold onto rebounds. Pittsburgh dominated the offensive glass, holding a 15-7 edge in offensive rebounds and a 16-4 edge in second chance points. Late in the first half, the Panthers were getting 40% of their points off offensive rebounds and it seemed like their offense was taken from film of Tennessee/Memphis. Miss a shot, and let Nasir Robinson, who finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds and held Maymon to just one board, clean it up on the glass.
But while offensive rebounding was the story, the story within the story was the ability to hold on to the basketball. At least five times in the game thread, a commenter noted a rebound that went in and out of a Tennessee player's hands, and of the five rebounds that were fumbled out of bounds on the night, all five were off Tennessee. The Vols were able to get position on a strong rebounding Pittsburgh club, but they were simply unable to hold onto the ball, and ultimately the game.
The defenses dominated early, as Tennessee had four turnovers and just two shots in the first four minutes but held Pittsburgh to just two second chance baskets in the same span to trail 4-3 at the under sixteen. But the Vols would get a lift from six straight points on Kenny Hall spin moves (four on left-handed jump hooks and two free throws) and continue playing shutdown defense to take the lead and push it to 26-20 at the under four. However, Pittsburgh would close the half on a 7-0 run and would take a 27-26 lead into the break, largely on the strength of an 8-2 edge in second chance points and seven Vols turnovers to only one by the Panthers.
In the second half, Pittsburgh, who was playing in their first game without injured point guard Tray Woodall, settled down on offense, and the two teams went back and forth for eleven minutes, with a Trae Golden slam on a nice assist from Jordan McRae cutting the Pittsburgh lead to 44-43 with 8:51 to go. But then Pitt's star guard Ashton Gibbs, who had struggled against the Tennessee defense in the first half, began to hit shots, scoring seven straight points to give the Panthers a 51-45 lead that they would not relinquish.
The Vols were led by 13 points from Cameron Tatum, who also grabbed 10 boards to record a double-double, and 12 rebounds from Kenny Hall. Golden and Maymon also hit double figures with 12 points each, and Golden (6) and McRae (5) dished out 11 of Tennessee's 13 assists.
Despite allowing so many lay-ups off offensive rebounds, Tennessee held Pittsburgh to just 42.2% from the floor, and the number of shots affected in the interior goes beyond the six shots swatted away by a combination of McRae, Maymon, Hall, and Dwight Miller. The Vols shot 45.1% from the floor but were only 4/14 (28.6%) from beyond the arc and went cold for long stretches late in each half.
Tennessee has now dropped four straight against Division I competition and returns to action next Saturday against Austin Peay.