NEW YORK — Three days after being scolded with a seat on the bench to start a game, Pitt’s senior leaders responded by playing with the type of urgency coach Kevin Stallings was hoping to see.
With their renewed effort, the Panthers might have pushed Georgia Tech off the NCAA bubble.
Michael Young scored 17 points and Jamel Artis added 11 points and nine rebounds as Pittsburgh rode its top two players to a 61-59 victory against Georgia Tech on Tuesday night in the first round on the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
The 14th-seeded Panthers (16-16) play sixth-seeded and No. 21 Virginia on Wednesday night at Barclays Center.
No. 11 seed Georgia Tech (17-15) closed the season losing four of five, putting its hopes of earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament in peril.
“I still believe eight wins in this league deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament, being this is the best league in the country,” Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said. “However, I know it could still be a longshot. We’re going to keep our fingers crossed.”
Artis and Young were kept out of the starting lineup and on the bench for the first 10 minutes of Pitt’s season-finale loss to Virginia on Saturday for what Stallings called a violation of team rules.
“I thought we were a more together basketball team tonight than we had been in a while. Put it that way,” Stallings said. “And I thought that togetherness carried us through to win, even though you look down and we’re six of 23 from three, and we have almost twice as many turnovers as they have.”
The team’s top two scorers returned to starting five and hit some big shots late.
Young gave Pitt the lead with a 3 with 4:00 left in the second half. After Georgia Tech tied it at 51 moments later, Artis dropped in a 3 — his only make in eight attempts from long range — that made it 54-51 Pitt.
“It was a great feeling to see the ball go in at that point in time, because I knew it was very crucial. My team needed that,” Artis said.
Young leaned in for two more with a minute left to make it 56-51 and Artis made a couple of free throws with 43 seconds left to put Pitt up seven.
Georgia Tech had a last chance to go the length of the court with 1.4 seconds left, but a long inbounds pass was deflected away by the Panthers.
“We believe, our coaches believe, this whole program believe that we can do something special in this tournament,” Young said.
Pittsburgh: Stallings said he was trying to build culture when he sat his seniors in the season finale. Time will tell, but the immediate results were positive.
“I think that they kind of took it upon themselves to approach this a little bit differently, a little better,” Stallings said. “Our practice sessions were really good and productive leading up to this game. They were better than they had been in a couple weeks probably.”
Georgia Tech: While Pastner’s first season at Georgia Tech has to qualify as a success — the Yellow Jackets were expected to be the worst team in the ACC — the ending will sting. The Yellow Jackets had wins against North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame, and Pastner won ACC coach of the year. Losses to North Carolina State and Pitt down the stretch will likely mean seventh straight season without an NCAA bid.
“I just think towards the end (of the season) there, you know, we milked everything we could out of the guys,” Pastner said. “Literally, every ounce of energy.”
Pittsburgh: The Panthers beat Virginia the first time they played in January, but were routed 67-42 in Charlottesville.
“We can beat any team in this tournament right here. We’ve just got to play up to our potential,” Artis said.
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets will probably be relegated to the NIT.