GREENSBORO, N.C. – Nelly Cummings scored 13 points and No. 11 seed Pittsburgh held sixth-seeded Iowa State to 23% shooting in a 59-41 victory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
Jamarius Burton added 11 points and Greg Elliott had 10 for coach Jeff Capel’s Panthers, who stormed to a 22-2 lead after Iowa State missed its first 11 shots. Things didn’t get much better for the Cyclones, who had three stretches in which they missed at least eight consecutive shots.
Pitt (24-11), which edged Mississippi State in the First Four, moves on to Sunday’s second-round Midwest Region game against third-seeded Xavier, which had to rally from 13 points down to beat No. 14 seed Kennesaw State.
“What an unbelievable defensive performance,” Capel said. “We were a really good defensive team for the majority of the year except for the last month of the season – and we’ve really dialed back in these past two games and played at an elite level.”
Gabe Kalscheur and Jaren Holmes each had 12 points for Iowa State (19-14), which reached the Sweet 16 last year in coach T.J. Otzelberger’s first season.
The Cyclones, who had lost nine of their previous 13 games, didn’t make a field goal until Holmes’ short jumper with 9:53 left in the first half, which drew a sarcastic cheer from Iowa State fans.
Iowa State’s poor start came while shooting at the same basket that officials worked to fix before the game, causing a brief delay.
“Iowa State asked us during pregame warmups to check if the rim was level,” the NCAA said in a statement. “Building personnel checked it and made a minor adjustment prior to the game beginning. We offered them additional warmup time but they declined.”
Otzelberger said he wasn’t sure if the issue with the basket might have gotten into his players’ heads and contributed to their poor shooting, saying, “you’d have to ask the players.”
Kalscheur said it wasn’t, adding that players are trained to handle adversity.
The Cyclones clawed within 30-23 at the break but started the second half much like they did the first – making two of their first 19 shots.
When Pitt’s Nike Sibande was fouled on a 3-pointer from the left corner with under five minutes left and made the ensuing free throw to put the Panthers up by 20, it was all but over.
The Cyclones went nearly eight minutes without a field goal in the second half before Tamin Lipsey made a 3-pointer from the corner with 2:13 left to cut the lead to 19.
One the biggest highlights for Pitt came late in the second half when wiry 7-foot center Jorge Diaz Graham lofted a perfect pass to his identical twin brother Guillermo for a dunk, causing the Panthers’ bench to erupt in celebration.
The brothers don’t see many minutes on the floor together since they’re freshmen and play the same position.
“It was a blast of energy,” Guillermo Diaz Graham said. “That ball coming from my brother especially … it was amazing.”
Added Jorge Diaz Graham: “The funny thing is yesterday in practice he dunked on me and (teammate) Nate (Hinson) and he was talking trash. So I told him, ‘OK, you want to talk now, but just do it in a game.’ And so he did, and now I have to shut up and say thank you for making my assist.”
Pitt also got an emotional boost from center Federiko Federiko, who received a huge ovation from the Panthers faithful when he checked into the game in the first half. Federiko sat out with a knee injury against Mississippi State and the Panthers were outrebounded by 21.
“We’ve had something to prove since the preseason ranked us 14th our conference,” Cummings said. “We’ve had a chip on our shoulder the first time we seen that. Dayton (the First Four site) was just another example of us having to put a chip on our shoulder again. We’re definitely looking forward to proving more.”
Pitt: The Panthers knocked down eight 3s against one of the better defenses in the country when they beat Mississippi State for their first NCAA Tournament win since 2014. They stayed hot against Iowa State, making their first three shots from beyond the arc.
Iowa State: Despite playing in the competitive Big 12, the Cyclones weren’t quite ready for the big stage, enduing one of the poorest shooting performances in recent memory.
“We’re a team that is fueled by our defense and felt like early we didn’t dictate and disrupt quite as well as we needed to to get our natural rhythm going,” Otzelberger said.