Ashton Gibbs spoke softly as he pondered another game that got away from struggling Pittsburgh.
"We were right there," Gibbs said Monday night after the Panthers' seventh straight loss, 71-63 to No. 1 Syracuse. "Just those little things are separating us."
The Panthers (11-8, 0-6 Big East) were coming off a stunning 62-39 home loss to Rutgers last Wednesday, the fewest points they scored in a regulation game since a 53-30 loss to Temple in 1969, and hadn't played the top-ranked team in the nation in three years.
On this night, they seemed ready to begin to right a season gone wrong. Instead, they had to settle for another loss. At least they made a game of it after falling behind 13-0.
"It's obvious that we're close," Gibbs said. "We were right there against one of the best teams in the country. We responded well. Missing 13 layups isn't acceptable at all. We missed 11 free throws and we lost by eight. I think that was the difference. We make layups and make free throws, we win the game."
The win gave Syracuse (20-0, 7-0) the school record for victories at the start of a season and it was No. 876 for coach Jim Boeheim, tying him with Adolph Rupp of Kentucky for fourth place all-time in Division I. North Carolina's Dean Smith is third with 879.
Boeheim extended his Division I record for most 20-win seasons to 34.
Gibbs, Cameron Wright and Lamar Patterson all scored 10 points for Pitt, which had won 13 of the past 16 meetings with the Orange. Nasir Robinson, Pitt's second-leading scorer at 12.4 points per game, had four points and missed 6 of 8 free throws.
Dion Waiters led Syracuse with 16 points and Scoop Jardine had 12 points, 10 assists and just two turnovers. Joseph and Brandon Triche both had 12 points for Syracuse, while Fab Melo had 10 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks before fouling out in the final minute.
It was Pitt's first game against a top-ranked team in nearly three years. The Panthers brought a 2-13 record in those games into the Carrier Dome, but those two wins came in succession against Connecticut in February and March 2009. They also had beaten Syracuse five straight times.
"They're ranked where they are because of how deep they are, how experienced they are," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "I thought we did some good things. I'm proud of how hard we played and what we did on the glass. The rebounding, especially, was a good showing by us. I thought we attacked the zone pretty well, but some missed layups I think really hurt us early."
Pittsburgh outrebounded Syracuse 40-28, 19-8 on the offensive glass, but only had 15 second-chance points to show for it as Syracuse challenged inside, blocking 11 shots.
"We let them get too much penetration, and they took advantage of what we gave them — penetrating and kicking to the open man, and they made shots," Gibbs said. "If we made layups, if we made free throws, we would have won the game."
Syracuse's last home win against the Panthers was 67-65 on Feb. 1, 2003. Syracuse's last win over Pitt was 65-61 in the 2006 Big East tournament championship game, and its last victory during the regular season was 49-46 in overtime in February 2004 at the Petersen Events Center.
Pitt trailed 48-34 with 15:10 left when Jardine hit from the right corner and flashed a smile as he headed back up court. Undaunted, the Panthers came back as they worked the shot clock looking for openings in the Syracuse zone. A 3-pointer by John Johnson as the shot-clock buzzer sounded and Dante Taylor's reverse layup had them within nine points in less than 2 minutes.
A 3 by Waiters boosted the lead back to nine, but Johnson hit another 3 and Talib Zanna scored four straight points to move Pitt within 53-49 with 8:36 left.
Syracuse responded quickly. Waiters drove and dished to Joseph on the wing for a wide-open 3 and after Johnson missed from long range for the first time in the game, Waiters swished a 3 from the left wing and the lead was back to 10. Pittsburgh never got closer than eight points despite shooting 48 percent (12 of 25) in the second half.
Pittsburgh scored the first 19 points in beating the third-ranked Orange 74-66 at the Petersen Events Center a year ago, Syracuse's first loss of the season after 18 straight wins.
The Orange seemed intent on turning the tables in this one, storming to a 13-0 lead as the Panthers missed their first six shots and Melo registered three blocks in the first 4 minutes.
In last year's game, the Orange rallied right back, scoring 17 straight points, and Pitt responded in this one with a 15-6 spurt. A three-point play by Wright after an acrobatic layup and a free throw by Patterson moved Pitt within 19-15 with 7 minutes left in the first half.
Syracuse boosted the lead back to as many as 12 points on Melo's dunk with 2:24 to go and led 35-26 at halftime. The Orange had eight blocks, forced 11 turnovers, and had nine assists on 14-of-27 shooting (51.9 percent) while holding Pitt to 10 of 31 (32.3 percent) from the field.
"They've got a lot of size," Dixon said. "Their big guys are going to be around the basket. We've got to make those plays. We've got to finish."