Pitt had to face some obstacles on Thursday night, but a 14-5 run in the first few minutes of the second half gave the Panthers enough momentum to ride for the rest of the game, as they defeated rival West Virginia 71-58. The win cut's Pitt's magic number to two; a combination of Pitt wins and Notre Dame losses that equal two clinches first place for Pitt in the regular season. Pitt only needs one more win, or another Notre Dame loss, to clinch a double-bye for the upcoming Big East tournament.
Nasir Robinson led the Panthers with 14, followed by Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown with 11. Brown's 11 points is all the more impressive, considering the fact the scored them in a total of 19 minutes, but played roughly three minutes in the second half due to being in foul trouble.
"This was a good win for us against a very good NCAA Tournament team," Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said after the game. "I especially liked how we played in the second half. I felt pretty good about how we played in the first half, we were in trouble and had guys playing in different spots, so we felt good being down by just one. In the second half, we took care of the ball and took good shots."
The biggest contribution they got of all was from Lamar Patterson who came off the bench with 11 points. Patterson's contribution saw the Panthers get an unexpected contribution for a redshirt freshman, but Patterson also filled in admirably for Brown.
No one was happier for Patterson than his senior teammates, one being Wanamaker.
"We knew it would happen," Wanamker said, referring to Patterson finishing in double-figures. "We always joke with him, telling him he's a practice player, but we're only joking around. We knew he would come around. He works hard every day. We're just happy for him." Pitt and West Virginia traded the lead six times in the first half. The Mountaineers started off the game hot, building a 7-0 lead. Pitt missed two inside shots thanks to some tough defense from the Mountaineers in the paint, a pair of missed three-pointers and two turnovers. The Mountaineers built an early 7-0 lead just three and a half minutes in, as Jamie Dixon called a timeout to pull his team together.
Pitt answered with an 11-2 run, building an 11-9 lead with 11:57 left in the half. The Panthers got it going with a three-pointer from Brown—the first of three three-pointers he'd have in the first half. The Panthers also had some help from Patterson and J.J. Richardson off the bench; Patterson who took a drive from the perimeter, and Richardson who added a short-range jumper. While Pitt found ways to execute the short-range jumpers, it bought them some time as far as finding a way to score more points in the paint. Of those first 11 points, only two were scored in the paint.
West Virginia seized the momentum again, leading 24-22 with 4:50 left in the half. Both teams were able to build runs, but neither was able to secure momentum until the end of the half—very similar to the St. John's game this past Saturday. Down by two and under five minutes to play, Pitt got a three-pointers from Brown and Travon Woodall to put them back up 28-24 with 3:38 left in the half.
Unfortunately, Pitt could not take that lead into halftime—despite a spectacular dunk from Brown, where he beat West Virginia's Kevin Jones with a quick move, then was able to get up for the dunk before John Flowers had a chance to slide to the ball. Brown's dunk gave Pitt a 30-29 lead, and despite having the ball for what could have been the final shot, a pass from Woodall intended for Dante Taylor got picked off by Mazzulla. Cam Thoroughman put his team up 31-30 at the half on a putback.
Despite trailing, Pitt outrebounded the Mountaineers 17-15 in the first half, and they were shooting over 50 percent from the field. These were two of the areas they wanted to improve on coming off the loss to St. John's. Despite trailing on the scoreboard, they felt they were doing enough things right to carry over to the second half.
"I think we had a valiant effort in the first half, but we just weren't making shots," Brown said. "Ashton (Gibbs) missed a couple of shots. We missed a couple of layups here and there. We said that coming in the second half we had to make our adjustments, crash the boards, and lock down our shots. We responded. Lamar had a great game."
With six lead changes in the first half, there was just one lead change in the second half, and it came just a few minutes in as Wanamaker set up Patterson for an easy layup. Pitt went up 33-31, and would hold the lead for the remainder of the game. Patterson scored the first five points of the second half to get his team going.
Pitt continued the momentum this time, something neither team could do in the first half, going on a 15-5 run, as they built a 45-36 lead six and a half minutes in. Pitt held West Virginia without a point for the first 3:17, and held the Mountaineers scoreless for another span of four minutes later on. West Virginia scored just six points in the first nine minutes of the second half, coupled with the fact that they shot just 6-of-25 (26.1%) for the second half while Pitt was clicking at a 65.2% clip (15-of-23).
West Virginia had big games from Joe Mazzulla and Darryl Bryant on Saturday, where the two combined for 40 points and five three-pointers. Thursday night against Pitt, the backcourt duo was held to 5-of-17 shooting, including just two three-pointers from Bryant. Casey Mitchell stepped up with four three-pointers, but for the most part Pitt felt they did what they had to do on the defensive end.
In the last meeting, West Virginia big man Denez Kilicli executed well by scoring 19 points. Dixon said heading into this game that he was still pleased with how Gary McGhee and Dante Taylor defended Kilicli when they were assigned to him. Thursday night, Kilicli fouled out, but scored just two points in 12 minutes of play.
"Our post defense was better tonight, but I just thought he made really tough shots the last time we played them," Dixon said. "He never really got in his rhythm tonight since he was in foul trouble and didn't get as many minutes. The post defense was something we emphasized coming into tonight."
Brown picked up his third foul with just 1:08 left in the half. He didn't come in to the game until the 14:46 mark. Unfortunately, he picked up his fourth foul just two minutes in to his shift. He sat out for ten minutes, where Pitt outscored West Virginia 20-16. When he returned, he fouled out with 1:14 after re-entering the game.
"The calls are more tight," Brown said. "The refs have to make calls because that's what they're paid to do. We have to just live with it. Whether or not we think it is a good call, we have to just persevere and push forward."
NOTE-It was announced prior to tip-off, that Talib Zanna broke his right thumb and could be out anywhere from three to six weeks. Zanna will have surgery Friday. In Zanna's place, Richardson added two points and two rebounds in eight minutes of play. After the game, Dixon got a little more specific on how Zanna injured his thumb, calling it an off-the-court incident.
"Guys were messing around," Dixon said. "After a pre-game meal, getting into the car, just one of those things. It happpened this afternoon."