Villanova tried to slow the tempo of the game down, and they succeeded for much of the first half, but thanks to a couple of second-half runs, Pitt was able to pull out a 60-50 win over the Wildcats in front of a capacity crowd of 12,843 at the Petersen Events Center.
The win gives Pitt a 15-3 record in the Big East, and clinches first place for the Panthers in the regular season. The Panthers are 27-4 overall, and will head to New York, opening play in the Quarterfinal round of the Big East Tournament on Thursday. Villanova closes the regular season at 21-10 overall, 9-9 in the Big East.
"Very excited for our whole team, the seniors especially," Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said. "Obviously, to end it with an outright Big East Championship on Senior Night, you can't do it much better than that."
In the end, Pitt dominated Villanova in nearly every aspect of the game. The Panthers shot over 40 percent in both halves, while Villanova shot under 40 percent in both halves. The Panthers outrebounded the Wildcats 36-to-23, including a 2-to-1 ratio in defensive rebounds. The biggest area that helped the Panthers—especially down the stretch—was a season-high 23-of-26 (88.5%) performance from the free throw line.
"We rebounded and defended well for the entire game," Dixon added. "Eventually, our offense just came into play and started taking care of the ball, first and foremost. We found a way to pull away, and get a ten-point win."
Individually, Ashton Gibbs led Pitt with 18, and was the only Pitt player in double-figures. Villanova's Maalik Wayns had a game-high 27 points, including three three-pointers. Gary McGhee finished with a game-high 10 rebounds, while Travon Woodall, Gilbert Brown and Nasir Robinson each added nine points.
Other teams like Notre Dame have found success against the Panthers by slowing down the pace of the game, sustaining long possessions. Villanova established an early 8-3 lead, scoring six of those first eight points off Pitt turnovers in the early going. Villanova head coach Jay Wright made the decision to go with this slow tempo the minute he knew guard Corey Stokes wouldn't be able to go. Stokes was declared game prior to tipoff with a hamstring injury. Wright called the injury, at this point, "serious" in terms of Stokes' status for the postseason.
"We had to," Wright said, referring to slowing the tempo down. "There's no way we're going to go in and outscore these guys without Corey."
Pitt battled back with a 6-0 run, to take a 9-8 lead off a layup from Robinson. The first half saw four more lead changes. Neither team was able to establish control, but the Wildcats were succeeding slowing down the tempo of the game.
It wasn't until the final ten minutes of the game that Pitt was able to finally pull through and get some separation. Both teams, through the first 10 minutes of the second half, traded the lead four more teams. Villanova led by as many as three after Wayns took one to the hole, and drew a foul from Wanamaker. The Wildcats were up 28-25.
"The game today was similar to the Notre Dame game," Brown said. "It was a game of few possessions. They tried to hold out, basically break us down and force shots up in our offense. We had to stay focused and remain patient."
At this point of the game, the three seniors had combined for two points, which came from Brown, who grabbed a rebound in the first half, then took it all the way to the other end for a layup, making it an 8-5 game in favor of Villanova—this coming after Jamie Dixon had to call an early timeout.
It was at about this point, the seniors gave the team a spark, which helped put the game away. Wanamaker made a free throw to tie the game at 25-25, but it was a three-pointer from Brown that brought the crowd to life a little bit. Pitt was up 34-30 with 10:46 left in the game. Coincidentally, that three-pointer gave Brown 1,000 points for his career. He realized that, but that wasn't the most important thing on his mind.
"It was a big shot at that time of the game," Brown said. "It helped changed a little of the momentum. I knew (it was the 1,000th point). It was a great feeling."
Pitt had seen its share of big plays in this game, but Villanova was able to come back with a play of their own, or Pitt would turn the ball over. This time, after Brown's three-pointer, it was Wanamaker coming up with a defensive rebound off a miss from Villanova's Maurice Sutton. Wanamaker took off out of the hole, then fed the ball to Woodall, who had McGhee already underneath helping seal off a defender. It left an open lane for Woodall to drive in for an easy layup, as Pitt tied its biggest lead at 36-30. Wright called a quick 20-second timeout.
On the next possession, after a missed three-pointer from Brown, McGhee came up with the offensive rebound and the dunk, giving Pitt its biggest lead of the game at 38-30. Big plays on the glass helped set up big points on offense, as the Panthers were able to establish a more comfortable lead.
"We knew the game was going to be slower possessions after the first half," McGhee said. "We did a better job of moving the ball on offense, getting the shot that we wanted, not rushing shots. We did a good job of executing that in the second half."
It was after this stretch that the free throw shooting came in. The Panthers shot 18 consecutive free throws, only missing their last one. It started with Wanamaker's free throw earlier, which tied the game at 25-25, and went all the way through to the end. Free throw shooting may have cost the Panthers a win at Louisville earlier this week, but it didn't on Saturday.
Villanova had one more burst of energy. After Gibbs hit an open three-pointer to put Pitt up 43-32 with just over seven minutes left in the game, Pitt forced its shots on the next two possessions. Both forced shots resulted in misses, while Villanova answered with two three-pointers from Wayns. Pitt had done a nice job establishing presence on the glass, and pushing transition to build a double-digit lead. Now, as a result of forcing two early shots, their double-digit lead was back to five.
They needed one more run, and it came from those free throws. The lone field goal that Pitt had over the final four minutes came from Woodall, who impersonated Brown's early play in the first half with a defensive rebound, then a coast-to-coast layup of his own, putting the Panthers up 51-38.
If the Panthers hadn't converted 15-of-16 free throws in the final four minutes of the game, this game could have ended up like the Louisville game. Had they made free throws in that game the way they did today, perhaps they would have come out on top with the win. Clearly, Wright wanted to employ a gameplan similar to what Notre Dame did earlier this year. He also hoped if Pitt had a similar free throw shooting performance as they did against Louisville, that too would help give his team a chance.
Pitt made adjustments and corrections from its mistakes against Notre Dame—who slowed down the pace of the game. They also responded from their worst free throw shooting performance on Sunday to come out with their best one of the season today. Any theories Wright may have had from watching those two games were proved wrong on Saturday.
"They deserve it, they really do," Wright said. "Those guys are classy, they play hard, they don't talk any trash. We have great respect for their program."
After the game was over, a banner was raised the title "Big East Champions" on it. Big East officials were also on hand to deliver the official trophy which will be added to Pitt's trophy case. Wanamaker said it was definitely special on Senior Day to have such presentation, but that Saturday was just another item to check off the list.
"That's just the first checkpoint of what we want to do this year," Wanamaker said. "After tonight, we're going to get focused on New York, and what we have to do down there."