Ever since Jamie Dixon took over as head coach at Pitt, he is always quick to point out RPI and strength of schedule, and how he tries to set up the toughest possible matchups for his Pitt teams.
It almost got the best of him on Monday night, as the Panthers escaped with a 83-75 win over Rhode Island. Pitt got a huge lift from guards Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs. Wanamaker--who kept the team together during some tough stretches during the first half--led Pitt with 24 points, which tied a career-high. Gibbs finished with 22.
"There's a reason why teams don't want to play (Rhode Island)," head coach Jamie Dixon said after the game. "There's always a reason why we're in the top three in RPI in the last nine or ten years; because we play teams like this. We're the ones who agreed to play them, and we got the game we thought we'd get out of it.
Rhode Island led by as many as eight in the first half, thanks to its three-point shooting. Though the Rams shot just 11-of-28 (39.3%) in the first half, they did convert seven of 14 three-pointers, including four from guard Akeem Richmond. According to Wanamaker, it wasn't a matter of anything Rhode Island was doing schematically. They were just converting their opportunities.
"You got to want to defend (the perimeter)," Wanamaker said. "They took some tough shots. They made some tough shots. They were pretty balanced. They have a lot of good perimeter players. They attacked us all game."
In the second half, it was Delroy James--who was recruited to Rhode Island by current Pitt assistant Pat Skerry, who was an assistant for the Rams at the time--that did the damage. James hit four three-pointers down the stretch in the second half, to keep Rhode Island within striking distance. In the early minutes of the second half, Pitt built a 48-45 lead--it's biggest lead of the game since a 11-8 lead, just six minutes into the game. When Dante Taylor fed Gilbert Brown for his first dunk of the evening, giving Pitt that 48-45 lead, James was fouled on the ensuing possession. He converted both of his free throws. After a turnover by Pitt on its next possession, James answered with a three-pointer to give his team a 50-48 lead. Pitt thought it had seized some momentum, but James kept Pitt from breaking the game open.
"James is a good player," Dixon added. "We knew what he did--the jab step, and the three--that's exactly what we told (the Pitt players) he was going to do. There were no surprises."
Rhode Island stayed physical with Pitt--especially in the first half fighting for loose balls. Early on in the first half, Travon Woodall dove for a loose ball at midcourt. Nikola Malesevic dove for the ball and landed on top of Woodall. Both players were tangled, and the referees had to come in and separate them.
Two possessions later, as Wanamaker pushed a fast break, he tried to push the ball to Gilbert Brown, who was driving towards the cage for a possible layup. Daniel West stepped in at the last minute to try to knock the ball away. Both he and Brown had their arms locked, and gave each other a parting shove before being separated by the officials. That marked Brown's second foul of the game, and with 7:43 left in the first half, he stayed on the bench until the second half. Though Brown was rattled early up until that second foul, he responded in the second half. He finished with 10 points, and was 5-of-6 from the line.
Though Pitt was able to gain control of the tempo in the second half, the turning point of the game was a 9-0 run in the final 1:31. As Rhode Island built its biggest lead of the half at eight--a 36-28 lead--it was Wanamaker who picked up the pace. After a jumper from Will Martell to give the Rams the eight-point lead, Wanamaker drove the length of the court for a driving layup, cutting it to 36-30. Though Pitt was missing a lot of easy layups in the first half, Pitt was having success driving the ball.
Richmond missed a three-pointer which was rebounded by Talib Zanna, and pushed by Wanamaker again. This time is was Gibbs who connected on a short-range jumper from the top of the key, to trim the deficit to 36-32. Gibbs was also fouled on the play by Marquis Jones, and converted the free throw making it a 36-33 game with 45 seconds left in the half. Daniel West turned the ball over, which was picked up by Wanamaker. Wanamaker drove for another layup, and now Pitt trailed 36-35. Instead of running out the half, Gibbs stole the ball out of Richmond's hands. Gibbs found Lamar Patterson, who finished it off with a dunk. Pitt led 37-36 at the half. Dixon praised Wanamaker's leadership for making that key run.
"(Brad) did some good things, he always has," Dixon said. "Maybe some more people will talk about Brad. I went up to the Big East media day with a mission to tell people how good he was. Once again, I fell on deaf ears. Maybe now, that'll do it."
Gibbs, who also hit the 20-point plateau, credited the run as the turning point of the game.
"Basketball is about momentum," Gibbs said. "At that point, we had momentum going into halftime. We just carried it over into the second half; especially towards the end of the game knocking down big shots and free throws. Especially Brad, the senior. He carried us. We have to keep it going."
Zanna, making his first career start, finished with a game-high 11 rebounds which is the fourth-highest rebound total in a debut by a freshman. Wanamaker also led with eight assists. Patterson finished with five points and four rebounds.