Pitt opened up double-digit leads in the first and second-half, but needed a 20-5 run in the second half to pull ahead of USF, 67-55 on Wednesday night. Nasir Robinson and Brad Wanamaker tied for a game-high 13 points, leading two other Panthers in double-figures. Gilbert Brown finished with 11 points, while Talib Zanna came off the bench to add 11 points.
Shaun Noriega led USF with 11 points off the bench, followed by leading scorer Augustus Gilchrist and Jarrid Famous—both players who came off the bench to add 10 points each for the Bulls in the losing effort.
Robinson also led Pitt with 10 rebounds. It marked the fourth double-double of his career, his third of the season. The win also marks the third consecutive game where either Robinson or Wannamaker has finished at Pitt's leading scorer. In the three-game stretch without Ashton Gibbs, Robinson has averaged 14.3 points a game. Wanamaker has averaged 15 points a game over the same stretch. Pitt outrebounded USF 40-18 for the game.
With the win, Pitt improves to 24-2 overall, 12-1 in Big East play. USF drops to 8-19 overall, 2-12 in Big East play. The Panthers are a full two games up on second-place Notre Dame in the Big East standings, heading into its showdown with St. John's this weekend at Madison Square Garden.
"I'm very excited about the win and how we did it," Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said after the game. "Rebounding-wise, we really emphasized it this week going into this game. We got outrebounded by Villanova and really wanted to get a change against a good rebounding team in South Florida."
Entering the game, Pitt was averaging a rebounding margin of +11.7 boards a game. USF was averaging 37.6 boards a game, making the 40-18 advantage all the more impressive.
USF was able to build an early 14-10 lead, but it wasn't for lack of trying on the part of the Panthers. Both teams were off to good start shooting-wise. The Panthers and Bulls shot an identical 60 percent from the field to start the game, both with matching 6-for-10 performances. Both teams also had an identical four turnovers each, this all coming in the first nine minutes of the game.
The four-point lead was USF's largest of the first half. Travon Woodall came up with a couple big plays to help tie the game at 14-14. He first came up with a steal on defense, then pushed the ball up court. He fed Talib Zanna underneath, who finished with the dunk. Woodall then took it in by himself on a drive to tie the score, with 11:45 left in the half.
It was Zanna who helped give the Panthers some breathing room in the first half. After that first dunk from Zanna, the Bulls still hung around. Zanna went on to score eight consecutive points, and led the Panthers at halftime with 11 points. Pitt built a 30-20 lead with 3:26 left in the half. Zanna made a brilliant save of the ball, then passed it off to Woodall who fed Gilbert Brown for the dunk.
"Talib Zanna was very good today," Dixon added. "You see freshmen get better throughout the year, and that's a big part of it."
Pitt's biggest lead of the first half was 11 thanks to a three-pointer from Brown, as the Panthers went up 33-22. Back-to-back three-pointers from USF's Noriega, including one at the buzzer, brought his team back to within a seven-point deficit at the half, 36-29. Noriega said those three-pointers were a big momentum boost heading into the locker room.
"We were pumped," Noriega said. "We were energetic. We were ready to go out in the second half and try to get the ‘W.' We were really energized and pumped."
USF would get within a point in the second half, but really had the Panthers on their heels with under eight minutes left. Pitt then went on a 14-2 run over the next four minutes. It closed the game out, but first and foremost got the Panthers out of a slump that allowed the Bulls to get back in the game in the second half. After leading by seven at the break, Pitt connected on just three of its first 11 shots from the field.
Brown got the Panthers going again with a pump fake shot from the wing, giving his team a little breathing room at 45-42. USF kept it within one. Gary McGhee was called for a blocking foul on Jarrid Famous. Famous' two free throws brought the Bulls to within a point at 45-44.
After Robinson converted 1-of-2 fouls, the Panthers got a spark from freshman J.J. Moore, which proved to be a turning point of the game. Moore went for a steal that knocked the ball out of bounds. The ball went off USF guard Anthony Crater, giving Pitt the ball. Though the Panthers didn't score on that possession, Moore came up with another big play on defense on USF's next series. Gilchrist had the ball inside with Moore defending him. Frustrated by Moore guarding him so close, Gilchrist's elbow turned hard into Moore, knocking him down. The foul was Gilchrist's fourth of the game, but more importantly gave the stoic Panthers more momentum.
"J.J., we're really trying to get him to help us on the defensive end," Dixon added. "He came up with some big plays, as do all our freshmen.
"Those were two big plays. It got the guys going. It got us possessions, and that's what we needed against a team that was making shots; making some tough shots."
With 7:50 left in the game, Pitt was still up by two, 46-44. Noriega came up with a steal, but it was Woodall making another stellar play on defense. When Noriega drove the ball to the other end for what was supposed to be an easy layup, Woodall jumped up and blocked the shot attempt.
"That was a big part, because we missed out on making that two right there," USF head coach Stan Heath said after the game. "We didn't do a good job of getting a couple guys back to protect our end. That five-point swing happened."
Woodall also gave credit to Pitt assistant Brandin Knight for providing an extra spark in the huddle, which came right after this series of big plays on defense.
"Actually, when we went back in that huddle, Brandin Knight, he said we weren't playing our hardest," Woodall said. "I just tried to come up and make a hustle play. Then Nas did a good job coming up with a rebound. I think that kind of picked us up. That's our style of basketball."
Pitt got the ball back, and answered with a layup inside from McGhee. McGhee was fed inside on a quick pass from Wanamaker, then was fouled after the basket. McGhee's free throw gave the Panthers some breathing room, with a 49-44 lead, but it was only the beginning of Pitt's second half run.
After another stop on defense, Wanamaker hit an open three to give the Panthers a 52-44 lead with 7:02 left. Stan Heath had to call one of his thirty-second timeouts to get his group to regroup.
Instead of regrouping, the Panthers continued with the offensive firepower. Brown found Robinson—who scored 11 of his game-high 13 points in the second half—in the paint for an easy layup, as Pitt went up by double-figures again, 54-44.
Pitt led by as many as 16 points with just 1:12 left. After the Bulls got to within a point, Pitt shut them down with a 20-5 run during the nine-minute span. Just as they did at the end of the first half, the Bulls got three-pointers from Mike Burwell and another from Noriega, where the game wrapped up with a 67-55 final.
"Jamie does a terrific job," Heath added. "They have a solid philosophy. They execute extremely well with those extra passes. They're a very unselfish team on both ends of the court. You got to give them a lot of credit. They execute, both on offense and defense, extremely well."