'A great feeling': Pitt outlasts Mississippi State in First Four

DAYTON, Ohio -- Pitt forward Guillermo Diaz Graham was physically and emotionally spent, as he fell into the embrace of his twin brother, Jorge, near midcourt at UD Arena on Tuesday night.

The Pitt freshman had logged a season-high 37 minutes in place of injured starter Federiko Federiko. Guillermo was overmatched for much of Pitt's First Four game against Mississippi State and first-team All-SEC forward Tolu Smith. Mississippi State had dominated inside, recording 18 offensive rebounds and 30 points in the paint.

Down 60-59 in the closing seconds, Mississippi State went to Smith, but Diaz Graham blocked his shot with 2.7 seconds left. Two more Bulldogs misses followed and Pitt survived, fittingly by a single point, 60-59 in a game with nine ties and 21 lead changes. Neither team led by more than a single possession for a stretch of nearly 26 minutes.

The 11th-seeded Panthers won their first NCAA tournament game since 2014 and advanced in the Midwest region to face No. 6 seed Iowa State on Friday in Greensboro, North Carolina.

"[Jorge] came to me, he hugged me and all the emotions I've been feeling during the game -- I had to keep my face straight -- but all the emotions at the end, when I hugged them, they came out," said Diaz Graham, who grew up with Jorge in the Canary Islands of Spain. "It's a great feeling."

Pitt coach Jeff Capel knew during Tuesday's shootaround that Federiko, who made 27 starts but injured his knee in last week's ACC tournament against Georgia Tech, wouldn't be able to go.

Diaz Graham played 28 minutes in Pitt's ACC quarterfinal loss to Duke, scoring a season-high 14 points. But the challenge against Smith and Mississippi State's front line seemed daunting.

The Bulldogs outrebounded Pitt 27-13 in the first half.

"There were times when he wanted to put his head down and he didn't feel good about maybe an assignment or missing a shot, and those guys kept telling him, 'Don't do that. We got your back. We're with you,'" Capel said. "It's who they've been all year."

Capel thought the win epitomized a Pitt team that struggled early and for a stretch in January, but also won 10 of 12 games in ACC play entering March. Guard Nelly Cummings had several acrobatic layups while running the offense. Second-team All-ACC selection Blake Hinson hit an NBA-range 3-pointer to put Pitt up six points with 3:08 to play.

Then, after a 7-0 Mississippi State run, first-team All-ACC guard Jamarius Burton hit a jump shot over Smith with 10 seconds left that proved to be the game winner. Limited by foul trouble for much of the game, Burton had only four points before the critical shot.

"When I had the ball in my hands the last 30 seconds or so, I just told myself I was built for it," Burton said. "I just got to a spot and let it go, and I had complete confidence in myself."

Pitt had defended Mississippi State well all game but needed at least one stop, and likely more, to secure the win. Diaz Graham swatted Smith's attempt across the baseline, letting out a scream.

"It was all the energy coming out of my body," he said. "I did a block, I don't even know how, with my left hand. I usually don't use my left hand. And I blocked it, and I knew it was a big play, so I just let the energy go out."

Mississippi State still had a final chance, but Shakeel Moore's 3-point attempt and D.J. Jeffries' tip both missed, setting off a roar from a Pitt-partisan crowd of 12,453.

"Throughout the game, you heard the, 'Let's go Pitt' chants," Capel said. "And then at the end, in those last 2.7 seconds, I thought their energy helped that ball not go in, the 3 in the corner and then the tip-in."

Capel said there's a chance Federiko, who leads Pitt in field goal percentage (.667), blocks (57) and dunks (39), could return Friday against Iowa State. But after Tuesday's win, the Panthers are confident they can survive with whomever takes the floor.

"We showed toughness, resiliency," Capel said. "We were who we've been all year, and it wasn't pretty, but it was beautiful. We just feel so grateful, so thankful, and so excited to be able to advance and get to Greensboro."