SALT LAKE CITY — This was supposed to be a comeback season for Pittsburgh after failing to make the NCAA tournament last year.
But a quarterfinal loss to Syracuse in the Big East tourney and a 73-55 thumping at the hands of Wichita State on Thursday in the second round of the NCAA tournament had coach Jamie Dixon feeling bad for his players.
“I’m sorry for our seniors to go out this way. They had great careers and won a lot of games for us,” Dixon said of Dante Taylor and Tray Woodall, who wept during postgame interviews.
Dixon, the subject of speculation surrounding the head coaching job at Southern California, said “Well, yes,” when asked whether he expected to be back at Pitt (24-9).
“I just had my point guard break down here,” he added quickly. “That’s the farthest thing from my mind.”
Woodall was leading No. 8 seed Pitt in scoring entering Thursday’s second-round game. He finished with two points on 1-for-12 shooting, including 0-for-5 from 3-point range, with five turnovers.
“They played great and seemed to be far more aggressive,” Dixon said of the ninth-seeded Shockers. “Extremely disappointed in the loss. I know we’re a better team than what we played today.”
The Panthers will go forward with 7-footer Steven Adams, forward Lamar Patterson and freshman Durand Johnson.
Adams led Pitt (24-9) with 13 points and 11 rebounds in his first NCAA action, hardly overwhelmed at the big stage, something that could be a springboard for next year.
“Well, it has to be,” Dixon said. “That’s what I told our returning guys ... it’s something we’ve got to learn from and for Steve, he kept battling and kept going and was active around the glass.”
Malcolm Armstead led Wichita State with 22 points and Cleanthony Early added 21. Carl Hall added 11 points for the Shockers (27-8), who face Gonzaga on Saturday.
The Shockers forced Pitt into 15 turnovers and held the Panthers to 35 percent shooting, including 1-for-17 from 3-point range.
Woodall missed his first four shots and it didn’t get much better from there.
Plenty of credit went to Tekele Cotton, who had the task of guarding Woodall.
“Tray missed three layups there in a row at one point,” Dixon said. “It’s just one of those days for us. We talked about him being their best defender. ... Our balance has been our key, but when you don’t have anybody shoot it well and you go 1 of 17 from the 3, there are not a lot of things you can point to.”
The Shockers scored 21 points off turnovers and took advantage at the free throw line, making 33 of 41 attempts.
Wichita State led 26-21 at the break but nearly doubled its offensive output in the second half.
Early’s layup and two free throws by Armstead pushed Wichita State’s lead to 30-21 early in the second half. Johnson’s 3-pointer cut it to 30-26, and the Panthers were within 35-31 following a three-point play by James Robinson. Cotton answered with a 3-pointer to bump the Shockers’ lead to 38-31 with 12:44 remaining.
Hall’s three-point play with under 12 minutes left gave the Shockers a 10-point lead, 41-31. Pitt pulled within six after four free throws but the Shockers went on a 6-0 run, fueled by a pair of steals, a dunk by Cotton and two more free throws by Early for a 47-35 advantage with 10:13 left.
The Panthers wouldn’t get any closer than eight the rest of the way.
The game was expected to be a defensive struggle, with Pitt allowing just 55.4 points and the Shockers known for dominating the glass with 38 rebounds a game.
As expected, it was physical.
When Adams went in strong for a dunk in the first half, he was fouled hard by Early.
“We weren’t surprised at all,” Woodall said. “Coming into this game, coach emphasized to us that they were real physical. These guys were real tough.”