Pitt opened Big East play with an impressive 78-63 win over Big East rival Uconn. Pitt improves to 13-1 on the season, while the Huskies lose their first game of the season.
Ashton Gibbs led the way for Pitt with 21 points, followed by three other players in double-figures; Brad Wanamaker with 14, Gary McGhee with 11 and Nasir Robinson with 11. Monday night's game marked Robinson's first start of the season, after recovering from an early season knee surgery.
McGhee and Robinson also finished in double-figures on the boards; McGhee with 11, Robinson with 11. Kemba Walker lived up to everything the Panthers expected from him, finished with a game-high 31 points. It marked the tenth consecutive game for Walker in double figures.
On paper, what Robinson did was impressive, but the rest of the team fed off the energy he brought back to the starting lineup. That energy came from his hustle on defense, him going after loose balls. The rest of the team rallied around that hustle. Robinson found out at the beginning of preparations this week that he would be in the starting lineup.
"He definitely brings a lot of energy," Gibbs said of Robinson. "He has a big-time motor. Having him in early, it really helped us out as you can see today. He's just a real good energy guy. He gets a lot of rebounds. Having him in the starting lineup definitely helps us. I think the best is yet to come for him too."
From a team standpoint, Pitt's win came down to two areas; shot selection and transition defense. These are two areas that were the culprit of a loss to Tennessee two weeks ago--two things they didn't do well against a nationally-respected program. This time, against their conference nemesis, they fared much better. Pitt shot 52.1% for the game (25-of-48). They shot 57.9% in the first half (11-of-19), and even though they didn't fare as well in the second half (14-of-29), a 48.3% performance in the second half will win a lot of games. In transition, Pitt held UConn to just six transition points.
"I thought we executed," Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said. "I thought we took good shots for the most part. We got away from it a couple times. Our half-court offense was good. Our defense was much, much improved. That's something we focused on for awhile. We're getting there. They're a very good team, and we have respect for them."
Conversely, UConn did not shoot the ball well. Pitt held UConn to just 30.3% shooting in the first half (10-for-33). The Panthers were outrebounded 19-15 in the first half, but made up for it by converting 14-of-20 free throws. The scoring was balanced across the board for the Panthers for the game. On the other side of the floor, UConn showed how reliant they are on Kemba Walker. Walker shot just 3-of-12 in the first half for 10 points, with little help elsewhere. Walker still finished with 31. Despite the win, Pitt still took that personal.
"Coming into the game, we didn't want him to get his," senior guard Brad Wanamaker said. "Being the great player, he went out and got it. He made some tough shots, he went to the free throw line, with 31 points. I feel as though we had a good team effort on defense. We made things tough for their players."
UConn trailed the entire game. Pitt opened up the scoring from the get-go, and never looked back. Anytime UConn got close--usually the result of a Pitt mishap--Pitt tightened up on defense. Robinson was active on the boards early. McGhee came up with a couple early buckets--one, an easy layup off a feed from Gibbs. McGhee was fouled on the play, but did not convert his free throw shot.
With Pitt up 6-2, Walker's first three-point attempt of the night was an air ball. Pitt pushed the transition game, which resulted with an easy layup from Robinson--just one example of what his energy meant to the starting lineup. Even when the Huskies tried to press on the next series, Pitt did such a good job sharing the ball, that Robinson and McGhee combined for a nice finish--a feed from Robinson who drew a quick double before dishing inside to McGhee who finished with the easy layup.
Jim Calhoun had seen enough as Pitt pushed another transition basket, going up 14-7 no even five minutes in. Wanamaker brought the ball up court off a loose ball, made a quick pass to Gilbert Brown--who was in mid-air--who used quick hands to finish off the dunk.
"The defender came to me, and I saw the open man," Wanamaker, describing the alley-oop to Brown. "Gil showed his ability off when he got the ball."
UConn trimmed the deficit to six three times in the first half. After a three-pointer from Shabazz Napier made it a 16-10 game, the Huskies would only get to within six points twice more in the first half. Pitt led by as many as 10 points in the first half, building a 30-20 lead with 6:43 left in the half. Gibbs juked out the freshman Napier, and in the process drew the foul. He converted both foul shots to put the Panthers up by 10.
J.J. Moore came up with three big defensive plays that kept the Pitt lead safe in the first half. He stayed in tight defensively while defending Walker, drawing an offensive foul from Walker with 2:43 left in the first half. Pitt held on to a 34-26 lead with the change of possession. He grabbed a defensive rebound with under a minute to play, then drew another offensive foul--this time from Niels Gaffey at the end of the first half. Though he had no points to show for it, Moore was instrumental in Pitt keeping a nine-point lead, 37-28, at the half.
Walker certainly didn't go away with a fight in the second half. When Pitt went up 57-43--its biggest lead of the game to that point--Walker was responsible for the next 10 Husky points. Those 10 points included a pair of three-pointers, and were all scored over the next three and a half minutes. His second three-pointer brought UConn to within eight, at 62-53 with 6:02 to play. It was the first time since the 16:00 mark of the second half that the UConn deficit was in single digits. Jamie Dixon called timeout.
Pitt answered, just as they started the game. Wanamaker took the ball, and went straight to the hole for a layup to put Pitt up 64-55 with 5:40 left. UConn was hanging around to this point, but as players like Wanamaker continuing to make plays, combined with the fact that UConn players started fouling out, started to clinch the win for the Panthers.
The Huskies first lost center Charles Okwandu with 5:43 left in the game. Gibbs came up with his second three-pointer of the game--a three-pointer that took a lot of momentum away from the Huskies, as Pitt went up 67-55 with 3:15 left. Then, Roscoe Smith fouled out with 2:49 left to play. Though Pitt led by nine with 2:49 left, after Smith fouled out, Pitt players combined to shoot 6-for-6 from the free throw line down the stretch. Even when they tried to just run the clock out, Gibbs added his final three-pointer of the game. Pitt led 78-61 with 30 seconds remaining, which was answered by one final jumper from Jeremy Lamb, resulting in the final score of 78-63.
"I felt they locked us up defensively," UConn head coach Jim Calhoun said. "I thought it was the fairest game. Both teams are physical. I thought it was a terrficly officiated game. I thought the game was well officiated. I thought the Pittsburgh kids really came out and supported their team. I thought we didn't react well to being legally, physically handled defensively."