Blake Hinson walked into the media interview room at the Petersen Events Center on Monday afternoon and made his statement before he even sat down at the microphone.
On the eve of his team’s flight to Greensboro, Hinson sported a shirt that seemed to sum up the philosophy of the 2022-23 Pitt basketball team heading into the ACC Tournament.
Next to an image of a laid-back sun, the words on his left chest said it simply:
“Don’t worry folks”
Whether Hinson intended to wear that shirt for his nine minutes in front of the cameras on Monday is irrelevant; the words he spoked matched the words on his shirt, and the message was very much relevant after Pitt had, over the course of the previous five days, missed two opportunities to clinch a share of the ACC regular-season championship or even win it outright.
When the Panthers arrived home from Miami Saturday night, having lost a two-point game to the Hurricanes and fallen from first place in the conference to fifth as a result, team leaders gathered the players in the locker room to make sure the message was understood by every member of the program.
The goal of the meeting wasn’t to lecture. It wasn’t a wakeup call. And it wasn’t a “road to Damascus” moment.
Instead, the message in that meeting largely matched the message on Hinson’s shirt.
“Just kind of wiping off the blow as a team, just all checking in with each other like, ‘Everybody good?’” Hinson said Monday. “Because, I mean, we lost that opportunity but there are plenty of opportunities ahead of us, so that’s all it was.”
“That’s all it’s about,” senior leader Jamarius Burton added on Monday. “It’s never about condemning one another and being down on one another; it’s all about us moving in the right direction. We took two tough losses and it was right there in our fingertips, so we just wanted to make sure everybody is still in the right spirits moving forward.”
For Pitt, moving forward means facing Georgia Tech this afternoon in the second round of the conference tournament. The Panthers beat the Yellow Jackets twice during the regular season; interestingly, each win came after a loss, with Pitt’s Jan. 14 win in Atlanta following back-to-back losses to Clemson and Duke and the Panthers’ Feb. 21 win at the Petersen Events Center serving as a bounce-back from the loss at Virginia Tech the previous Saturday.
Now the team enters the ACC Tournament having lost two in a row. A disappointing loss at Notre Dame preceded the season-ending defeat at Miami, and the entire team knew what kind of opportunity had been wasted.
Team leaders like Burton wanted to make sure the disappointment didn’t carry over to the postseason.
“For me, I just felt like it’s easy for us to hang our heads after two tough losses,” Burton said. “We knew the stakes. We had an opportunity to have a share of the conference regular-season title. We all wanted that. It was in our fingertips. And I didn’t want anybody to be dismayed by the outcome. We still have a tremendous opportunity in the tournament and we want to have our best foot forward moving forward.”
As Burton sees it, the best way for the team to move forward is to emulate Hinson’s shirt and keep things loose.
“We have to do what we’ve always done, and that’s continue to play together. It starts there. We lose ourselves in a game; that’s how we’ve been successful. We don’t think about the outcome or anything like that. We just lose ourselves in a fight and we continue to fight for our brothers next to each other. That’s the mindset moving forward: continue to lose ourselves in a game.”
Postseason play is defined by one-and-done games, situations where one loss can mean the end of a tournament run and maybe even the end of a season. Pitt enters the ACC Tournament on a two-game losing streak, but that rough stretch was just a small segment of the Panthers’ 21-10 overall record and 14-6 mark in conference play.
Burton thinks the success Pitt had this season serves as a good template for what the Panthers need to do in the postseason.
“For us, it’s just about like we’ve done all year: taking advantage of the opportunity in front of us,” Burton said. “For us, that’s taking one game at a time and this is a good experience for us to be able to do it in the ACC Tournament.”