Con­fi­dence in each other re­mains high

Progress still ev­i­dent in seven-game slump

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Sports - craig meyer

In his nearly 18 months as a men’s bas­ket­ball player at Pitt, Jared Wil­son-Frame has en­dured much more than many col­lege bas­ket­ball play­ers han­dle in en­tire ca­reers.

There was the 2017-18 sea­son, when he had to shoul­der the heav­i­est of­fen­sive load for a plainly over­matched team fea­tur­ing seven fresh­men. In that same sea­son, he dealt with the emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal toll that came with a win­less fin­ish in 19 ACC games. Af­ter that was a coach­ing change, when the man who helped usher him from ju­nior col­lege to the ACC was swiftly fired, leav­ing him and his team­mates won­der­ing for 19 days who would be en­trusted with their in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive bas­ket­ball fu­tures.

Through it all, Wil­son-Frame has shown a re­siliency. So as the Pan­thers are mired in a se­v­engame los­ing streak, it’s dif­fi­cult to shake his be­lief in his team and what it can ac­com­plish, even as its record has slipped to .500. Af­ter all, he has been through worse.

“We’ve had some guys leave the pro­gram, but I’m still just as con­fi­dent in ev­ery hud­dle, ev­ery time­out we’re in,” Wil­son-Frame said af­ter a 79-76 loss Satur­day to N.C.

State. “We thought we were go­ing to win that game just now. Even with Sidy [N’Dir] tak­ing that shot, I’m think­ing it’s go­ing in. My first re­ac­tion is it’s go­ing in. I’m go­ing to try to go get the re­bound. We have con­fi­dence in each other and we have con­fi­dence our team; we’ve just got to do what­ever it takes to win the game.”

Loss af­ter loss can wear on even the best teams, as the taste of vic­tory seems more elu­sive with each pass­ing day (in Pitt’s case, it has been 26 days since its most re­cent win). Whether it’s for veter­ans such as Wil­son-Frame or fresh­men like Xavier John­son and Trey McGowens who have car­ried the team at var­i­ous points this sea­son, the scars of a los­ing streak can show them­selves in ways big and small.

In those mo­ments, it can be hard to main­tain per­spec­tive, but in pain, it’s pos­si­ble to find progress.

Af­ter los­ing their first five games of the cur­rent skid by an av­er­age of 12.6 points per con­test, never fall­ing by fewer than nine points, the Pan­thers have come up short by just five com­bined points in their past two de­feats. Part of that comes from the level of com­pe­ti­tion — the first of those two losses came to Wake For­est, a team ranked 176th among 353 Di­vi­sion I squads by KenPom.com, 49 spots be­hind the next-clos­est con­fer­ence com­peti­tor — but is it pos­si­ble those close losses are a sign Pitt is close to break­ing through?

First-year coach Jeff Capel be­lieves so, even if that dose of op­ti­mism comes with a sage caveat.

“I think we are, but at the same time, we want to win,” Capel said. “We had two op­por­tu­ni­ties to win and we came up short. I don’t want us to be sat­is­fied with just that, but we are getting bet­ter in some ar­eas.”

Given those small mar­gins of de­feat, there’s a gnaw­ing sen­sa­tion from iso­lated but all-im­por­tant mo­ments that come with what­ever sense of mo­men­tum Pitt feels like it has gen­er­ated.

It’s dif­fi­cult to look back at the over­time loss at Wake For­est and not think about the front end of the one-and-one John­son missed with 20 sec­onds left in reg­u­la­tion and his team up two, Pitt’s fail­ure to bring in three missed shots on the Demon Dea­cons’ fi­nal pos­ses­sion in reg­u­la­tion that ended with a buzzer­beat­ing put-back or Wil­son-Frame miss­ing an open 3pointer that would have pushed the Pan­thers’ lead to six with 3:05 re­main­ing in over­time.

The close calls and lin­ger­ing what-ifs weren’t quite as plen­ti­ful Satur­day against the Wolf­pack, but there were still mo­ments like the slow start to the sec­ond half that turned a three-point half­time deficit into a nine-point one in just 1:27 or the three 3s the Pan­thers missed in a stretch of 22 sec­onds in the fi­nal minute that would have tied the score, the first of which was a fairly open look from John­son, their best out­side shooter sta­tis­ti­cally en­ter­ing the day.

“It’s frus­trat­ing be­cause we’re al­ways right there,” Wil­son-Frame said. “There are things in close games where there might be in the last cou­ple pos­ses­sions things you can say ‘If I would have done this bet­ter, we would have won.’ The things we’re getting an­gry about is the fact we’re even putting our­selves in that sit­u­a­tion in the first place.”

Though it pro­vides only so much con­so­la­tion for Pitt, the teams they have played mul­ti­ple times have rec­og­nized the team’s im­prove­ment.

“Their record doesn’t in­di­cate how good they are,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said. “They play hard. It re­minds me a lot of my team in year one. Jeff’s try­ing to find the pieces that play to­gether. Those two young guards are re­ally good. They put a lot of pres­sure on your de­fense and they al­ways live in the paint. They do a tremen­dous job. It’s a good Pitt team.”

There’s re­as­sur­ance in those words, but it’s some­thing this team at this junc­ture largely knows. Their con­fi­dence con­tin­ues not to wane, but their de­ter­mi­na­tion to break their slump, with a road game Tues­day loom­ing against an 11-11 Bos­ton Col­lege team that has lost four in a row, only in­creases by the day.

It’s eas­ier said than done, but, as they see it, all they have to do is re­main strong.

“It’s a team ef­fort,” N’Dir said. “We trust ev­ery­body. Ev­ery­body trusts each other. I feel like we’re go­ing to get out of that slump. That’s how I feel right now. We’re go­ing to get out of it. We just have to keep stay­ing to­gether.”

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Sidy N’Dir re­acts af­ter his shot to tie N.C. State missed at the buzzer.

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Jared Wil­son-Frame drives to the bas­ket against N.C. State’s Jeri­cole Hellems in Satur­day’s 79-76 loss. The Pan­thers have lost seven games in a row, but Wil­son-Frame said they haven’t lost their con­fi­dence.

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