"This one hurt," said Clemson coach Brad Brownell, "because we had it."
Pittsburgh rallied from a five-point deficit in the final 13 seconds and then steamrolled the Tigers in overtime for an 83-78 victory Saturday that earned the Panthers the No. 5 seed in the ACC tournament and denied Clemson its 20th win overall and a record 11th victory in league play.
Urged on by a raucous packed house at Littlejohn Coliseum, the Tigers rode a strong first-half effort to a 36-29 lead, and then, after turning back a Panther rally, appeared to have victory in hand, leading 67-62 after a pair of free throws by Jaron Blossomgame with 12.9 seconds remaining.
After advancing the ball into the frontcourt, the Panthers gave themselves a chance by popping in a quick three-pointer off an inbounds play, leaving Clemson with 2.4 seconds to inbound the ball and seal the victory.
What followed was a worst-case scenario for the Tigers.
Contested closely by two Panthers, K.J. McDaniels lost the handle on the inbounds catch, and the ball bounced straight into the hands of Pitt's Josh Newkirk, who elevated and swished a 12-footer just as time expired.
The basket was ruled good on the floor by the officials, who then spent several long, tense minutes reviewing the play to see if Newkirk had beaten the buzzer. Finally, they called the coaches to the scorer's table, confirmed the basket, and sent the game into overtime.
It was Newkirk's only basket of the game.
Different video angles, the visible shot clock and the light on top of the backboard seemed to offer contradictory evidence, but in the end, the referees agreed that there wasn't sufficient reason to overturn the on-floor decision.
"They didn't tell me anything except that the basket was going to count," Brownell said.
The loss brought a disappointing finish to Clemson's strong stretch run, and will send the Tigers, 19-11 overall and 10-8 in the ACC, into their second-round ACC tournament game as either the sixth or seventh seed, depending on results of games Saturday night and Sunday.
Pittsburgh improved to 23-8 overall and 11-7 in the league.
"Boy, it hurts," said Brownell. "It hurts because we played well enough to win...and because we had it. When you do this long enough, I guess everything eventually happens - but this is a first...I need to watch the inbounds to see why we couldn't get it in. We just needed to make the play, get fouled, and the game was over.
"I'm extremely proud of our guys for the way they played. But we wanted to send the fans out with a smile to enjoy the rest of their day."
After the end-of-regular sequence, the Tigers appeared stunned on the bench as they prepared for overtime. And they played that way as the extra period began.
Pittsburgh reeled off seven unanswered points to open the overtime period, and led 81-74 after Cameron Wright hit a pair of free throws with 29 seconds remaining.
The Tigers narrowed the margin with two free throws by Rod Hall, and then capitalized on an errant inbounds play by the Panthers for a Hall three-pointer that cut the lead to three, 81-78, with 18 second left.
But then an ill-advised backcourt foul by freshman Austin Ajukwa sent Wright back to the free throw line, and he made a pair to wrap up Pittsburgh's victory.
After a shaky start - five turnovers in their first seven possessions - the Tigers settled in for the rest of the first half and played some of their best offensive basketball of the season.
Pitt led 17-13 at the first media timeout, and at that point Clemson had six baskets and six turnovers. The Tigers then outscored the Panthers 10-2 over the next four minutes, took the lead with back-to-back threes by Jordan Roper and McDaniels, and added another by Ajukwa for a 23-19 edge at the next break.
The Tigers extended their run to 19-4 and grabbed their largest lead at 32-21 after a steal and dunk by Ajukwa and a three-pointer by Blossomgame off a pass from Hall.
Clemson finished the half with a 38-29 advantage, after shooting 58 percent from the floor.
Lamar Patterson led Pitt with a career-high 30 points, while McDaniels paced the Tigers with 24. Blossomgame added 14 points and six rebounds, while Hall and Jordan Roper finished with 12.