DAYTON, Ohio — Jamarius Burton hit a go-ahead basket with :10 seconds remaining to give Pitt a thrilling 60-59 NCAA Tournament victory over Mississippi State on Tuesday evening. The Panthers fended off a last possession by Mississippi State in which the Bulldogs got off three shots attempts, and survived to advance to the first round on Friday against sixth-seeded Iowa State in Greensboro.
The win represented the Panthers first NCAA Tournament victory since the 2014 season and the first under fifth-year head coach Jeff Capel. The First Four matchup lived up the billing of two evenly matched teams.
The game featured 21 lead changes and both teams held the lead for at least 15 minutes in this one. From the 8:52 mark in the first half until Blake Hinson’s three-pointer with 3:08 left in the game, neither team held a lead of greater than three points. Hinson’s three pointer brought the house down with a strong Pitt contingent on hand at the University of Dayton Arena and gave the Panthers a 58-52 advantage.
The Bulldogs then ran off seven straight points to take the lead at 59-58, but with the game on the line Burton’s number was called and he delivered a clutch basket to punch his team’s ticket to the next round and collect their 23rd win of the season.
“When I had the ball in my hands the last 30 seconds or so, I just told myself I was built for it, and I just got to a spot and let it go, and I had complete confidence in myself,” Burton said. “That was pretty much everything that went down.”
It was clear Burton would have the ball in his hands, like he has many times this year with the game on the line, but it was only his third made basket of the game. He finished with 6 points in 19 minutes due to foul trouble, but he delivered down the stretch on the biggest possession of the game.
The Bulldogs were hot out of the gates and made four of their first five three-point attempts, and built a 14-8 advantage, but a subsequent 10-0 run for Pitt gave the Panthers an 18-14 lead, before the game turned into a chess match for the remainder of the contest.
The Bulldogs weren’t expected to shoot it well from the outside, but they had a distinct advantage inside and used that to build a 27-13 edge in the rebounding department in the first half. The Panthers countered that with eight made threes in the half, but then game script flipped in the second half. Pitt only made one three-pointer after halftime, but kept the rebounding margin a little more respectable at 22-15.
Pitt point guard Nelly Cummings carried the offense at times. He had played in the NCAA Tournament previously with Colgate and his experience shined through. Cummings topped Pitt with 15 points and four assists.
Greg Elliott added 13, Hinson provided 12, and Nike Sibande added 11 off the bench. The Panthers were without starting center Federiko Federiko in this one as he is still recovering from an injury he sustained in the ACC Tournament.
That meant Guillermo Diaz Graham, Pitt’s 7-foot freshman, would be making his first career start in the tournament. Diaz Graham finished with 3 points and 5 rebounds, but was one of Pitt’s biggest stars on Tuesday.
Mississippi State’s Tolu Smith is one of the premier big men in the SEC and was expected to be the decisive advantage for the Bulldogs, but was held to a modest 13 points and 8 rebounds. He struggled at times going against the length of Diaz Graham and also finished with five turnovers in the game. Smith’s final shot was swatted by the Pitt freshman on the final possession.
The Panthers will return to action on Friday as they take on Iowa State at 3:10 in Greensboro. Should Pitt advance, they would likely square off with third-seeded Xavier on Sunday. The Musketeers are coached by Pitt alum Sean Milller.