Pitt led by as many as 23, and even though Cincinnati took that second-half deficit to just eight points, Pitt was able to hold on for a 71-59 win over Cincinnati on Saturday night. Pitt improves to 21-2 overall, and 9-1 in the Big East. Cincinnati drops to 18-5 overall, 5-5 in the Big East.
Leading Pitt was Ashton Gibbs, who tied a career-high with 25 points. Gibbs has reached 25 points in a game two other times in his career (March 4, 2010 vs. Providence, December 8, 2009 vs. Indiana). Gilbert Brown added 11 points for the Panthers, followed by eight points from Brad Wanamaker.
Despite 13 rebounds from Gary McGhee, Cincinnati held a 40-38 edge in rebounds, including a 23-14 edge on the offensive boards. The Bearcats then turned those 23 offensive rebounds into 15 second-chance points. Larry Davis led Cincinnati with 13 points, followed by Anthony McClain with 13 points.
"We took great shots, got great shots and really put ourselves in a position offensively with our movement and execution," Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said. "That was great to see and help get us out to that great lead. It was a great sign of what we've been trying to work on all week. I'm really happy with how we played."
Pitt had not looked like the same team over the last two games; specifically coming off a season-worst 38.6 percent shooting performance at Rutgers. The Panthers jumped out to an early 5-2 lead, as Ashton Gibbs got a three-pointer on his first attempt.
In fact, Gibbs—who was 1-of-5 from three-point range at Rutgers—was a perfect 4-of-4 from three-point range in the first half alone. He was also responsible for 16 of Pitt's first 24 points. Gibbs also proved he could set his teammates up too, assisting on the only other Pitt three-pointer of the half. As Gibbs drew more awareness from the Cincinnati defenders, he took advantage of it. Gibbs pushed the ball right at the top of the key. The second he drew the double, he passed back to his left, to wide-open Gilbert Brown. Brown drained the three-pointer, putting Pitt up 29-19—Pitt's first double-digit lead of the night.
"Ashton Gibbs is one of the best players in the country," Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin said. "When you can shoot the ball the way that he can shoot the ball with people guarding you, that's tough (to defend)."
Being without forward Yancy Gates wasn't hurting Cincinnati too much, as they were able to get within 15-10 with 12:23 left in the first half. Rashad Bishop came up with a steal, then took it in for a dunk—untouched—bringing Cincinnati to within five. Meanwhile, Pitt was on another scoreless streak—a span of 4:10 before Brad Wanamaker came up with a jumper inside the arc, giving Pitt a 17-12 lead.
When it wasn't Gibbs, it was Brad Wanamaker who scored six for his eight first half points on transition buckets.
The absence of Dante Taylor and Lamar Patterson and Dante Taylor was pretty evident for the Bearcats, who outscored Pitt 14-3 in bench points for the first half. Both teams were even on rebounding at that point. It was the accuracy of Gibbs' three-point shooting and Wanamaker's willingness to come up with big plays on defense, and create transition, that helped give the Panthers a 40-23 lead.
Pitt got two quick three-pointers to start the second half, as Brown connected on Pitt's first shot of the half, followed by another three-pointer from Gibbs. Pitt was up 46-25 with less than a minute into the second half. Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin called a full timeout.
Coming out of the timeout, it looked like Cronin's plan was to set up a full press against the Panthers. Cincinnati came out doubling the ball, locking off three other players , then leaving Pitt's worst ball handler, or at least who they perceived Pitt's worst ball handler to be. At times that player was either McGhee or Talib Zanna. It didn't work right away, but it eventually became something to overcome as the Bearcats forced a season-high 18 turnovers out of Pitt.
In addition to being outmanned on the boards—including that 23-14 edge on the offensive rebounds—Pitt's bench was outscored by Cincinnati's bench 37-14 for the game. Not that Taylor and Patterson always combine to make up that difference of 23 points a game, but their absence was noticeable—especially Taylor, who is Pitt's leading rebounder off the bench.
"It's disappointing, but when you're holding (Cincinnati to) 33% (from the field) there's going to be a lot of attempts and probably a few more rebounds to get, but they had far too many with that number at 23," Dixon said. "We talked about them and what they did – we looked at their numbers and I was surprised that their rebound numbers have been a little bit down in offensive rebounds because they do a good job. Their guards rebound offensively and their big guys fly in from the outside. I think that was something that was a cause of it. We have to do a better job in that area."
After that three-pointer by Gibbs, which put Pitt up by 23 points, Cincinnati spent the rest of the half pressing and slowing the tempo of the game down. Additionally, Pitt was held scoreless for a span of 5:40 of the second half following Gibb's three-pointer. After Brown missed a three-pointer, Zanna—who saw considerable more minutes in the absence of Taylor and Patterson—grabbed the offensive rebound, with the putback, to keep Pitt up 48-30. Even though Pitt was held scoreless for such a long period of time, the Bearcats couldn't do much to catch up. At least not yet.
Pitt continued to build the lead. McGhee blocked a shot attempt by Davis. After Travon Woodall came up with the rebound, McGhee finished it on the other end with a dunk, putting Pitt up 50-30 with 13 minutes to play in the game. Woodall scored on the next possession, and a drive, then Gibbs added a pair of free throws on Pitt's next possession. Despite that long scoreless drought—where the Panthers were 0-of-6 from the field with three turnovers, Pitt extended the lead after getting a few quick baskets, 54-33, reaching the halfway point of the second half.
After Nasir Robinson finished with a jumper that gave Pitt a 59-37 with 7:08 left, Cincinnati started to make its late push. Cincinnati cut the Pitt lead to 61-47 thanks to a layup from Sean Kilpatrick. Jamie Dixon called a 30-second timeout. Pitt was just 1-of-3 since being up 59-37, had two turnovers, and was getting outrebounded on the offensive boards. In a minute and a half span, Cincinnati quickly got a pair of field goals off three offensive rebounds—the one miss resulted in the third offensive rebound, which McClain turned into a jumper.
Cashmere Wright—who averages 9.4 points a game for the Bearcats—didn't get his first field goal until a layup with 3:13 left in the game. It came at the right time, as Cincinnati cut the Pitt lead to 61-51. The Bearcats had also forced turnovers on two consecutive possessions, which they converted into points.
Cincinnati got as close to nine points after Wright converted 1-of-2 free throws. They trailed the Panthers 66-57 with 51 seconds left, as Ibrahima Thomas converted a pair of free throws. Then, they cut it down to eight points, after a pair of free throws from Wright again. Though Pitt was 5-of-6 from the free throw line free throws from the 2:17 span, down to under a minute, they couldn't build anything more than a 10- or 11-point lead. Cincinnati fought their way back into the game, and they were going to continue fouling; slowing the pace of the game down, even though the Pitt lead still hung around in double-digits with a minute left.
Pitt finally felt some breathing room with a layup from Woodall, who put Pitt up 69-59 with 36 seconds left. After a missed three-pointer from Davis, Woodall came down with the rebound, was fouled, then converted both free throws to wrap up the scoring; a 71-59 win.
"We had more turnovers and that was credit to Cincinnati playing more aggressive and grabbing the offensive rebounds, thus keeping their drive alive," Brown said.
NOTE—Prior to the game, it was announced that Cincinnati's second-leading scorer Yancy Gates and Pitt's Lamar Patterson would be suspended for the game. Patterson is expected to return to Pitt's lineup Monday. Dante Taylor was also held out of the lineup, stemming from a knee injury sustained in practice earlier in the week. He could also return for Monday's game. The return for Gates is questionable, according to Cronin.
"No, I am not concerned with him," Cronin said, in a post-game press conference where he was willing to field all questions on the matter. "I'm worried about the guys that are here. We don't have a lot of team rules, which are play hard, have a great attitude and be a good guy. It's not that hard to be a Bearcat. You either do it that way or you don't play for us. It doesn't matter who you are."
Dixon released a statement prior to the game regarding Patterson:
"Lamar Patterson will be suspended for tonight's contest against Cincinnati for disciplinary reasons. The one-game suspension stems from his involvement in a December incident that took place off-campus."