Pitt got back on the winning track with a 73-69 win over LaSalle at the Petersen Events Center on Tuesday night. The Panthers had four players who finished in double-figures; Nasir Robinson with 17, Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall with 12 apiece and Dante Taylor with 11. Woodall also had a game-high 10 assists.
The Panthers, however, got their biggest addition with the play of freshman Khem Birch. Pitt had just two points off the bench in last week's loss to Long Beach State, a game which also lacked any kind of inside presence or defense. Birch played a big part in turning things around, finishing with four points and a team-high six rebounds in 13 minutes. The freshman from Montreal also blocked three shots.
Pitt jumped out to an early 6-0 lead, forcing LaSalle to burn an early 30-second timeout. Pitt got all three of its field goals from the inside. However, after building that 6-0 lead, it quickly evaporated. Nasir Robinson was sent to the bench after picking up his first foul. Talib Zanna came in for him, giving Pitt a tall inside presence with him and Taylor. The Explorers, however, tied it up at 6-6. LaSalle got back into it thanks to a pair of Pitt turnovers.
Woodall then stepped it up. A steal, which he converted into a layup on the other end, followed by a three-pointer gave Pitt a 12-6 lead. Woodall was playing with a much younger lineup at this point than what he started the game with. He had freshmen John Johnson and Khem Birch entering the game just four and a half minutes in.
J.J. Moore was also in that lineup, and he was not shy about taking his chances. While he seems eager to score—worrying less about getting the right shot and just putting it up—the sophomore did come off the bench to score a pair of three-pointers. He missed on a forced shot, and was called for a travel the other time he had the ball. His quick six points extended Pitt's lead to 18-8 with 11:54 left in the half.
Pitt added to that lead with another three-pointer from Woodall. Pitt converted 4 of its first 6 three-pointers, en route to the 21-12 lead. Unfortunately, they missed their last three three-point shots of the first half. Robinson later added a layup in the paint, thanks to some solid passing from Patterson and Birch. Pitt led 23-14 with just over five minutes remaining in the half.
The last five minutes of the first half, Pitt stumbled. The Explorers had a little run left in them. Devon White bounced in a jumper off the rim. Earl Pettis then followed with a jumper of his own, Pitt's lead to 24-22 with 2:11 left in the first half.
Gibbs, despite the 0-for-5 start, got on the board with his first bucket of the night. He added a pair of free throws to give Pitt a little breathing room; a 28-22 lead.
The Panthers went on to a 28-26 lead at the half, and were in control for much of the half up until the last few minutes. The Panthers had shown some improvement from last Wednesday's loss—they were being more patient with their shots, they were getting good looks inside and finishing, and the bench was contributing. Really, the worst thing that happened to them in the first half was the 12 turnovers, the 0-for-5 start by Gibbs and the stumble down the stretch. Woodall filled in 10 points alone in the first half, which help offset the lack of production from Gibbs and Patterson. Pitt led, and played good for the first 15 minutes but did not finish strong.
In the second half, Patterson got on the board with a quick three-pointer from Patterson. It was Patterson's first points of the night, and ended an 0-for-3 drought from three-point range. LaSalle head coach John Giannini called a full timeout, just 34 seconds into the half after that three-pointer.
The Explorers stayed close in the game, but Pitt picked up three field goals in the paint from Nasir Robinson, building a 37-32 lead.
The continued presence inside helped add to Pitt's lead. Robinson added another layup in the paint, then Pitt got something it didn't have the other night. Birch came up with an offensive rebound, followed by a dunk. Pitt led 45-38. Gibbs added another three-pointer, as the Panthers went up by double-digits for the first time of the game; 48-38 with 13 minutes left in the game. There was an inside presence on both ends, and the Panthers were getting second-chance points out of it as well.
Birch's confidence continued to grow. On the next possession following Gibbs' three-pointer, Robinson tried to feed the freshman with a bounce pass in the paint. Birch was there, but couldn't get the layup to bounce in. The next time down on defense, Birch came up with a block. His minute total was a significant increase from Wednesday night, and in this key stretch of the second half, he was showing more confidence each time down.
Just like they had in the first half, LaSalle made it a game again. The Explorers tied it up at 52-52 with 7:45 left in the half, thanks to Pitt turnovers, and a pair of scoreless streaks. After Birch's dunk, the Panthers went four minutes without a field goal. They went on another two-minute drought, as LaSalle then took a 53-52 lead—its first lead of the game—on a free throw from Steve Zack.
Moore added his third three-pointer of the night—a play where he was wide-open, as Pitt went up 57-53. Moore has a tendency to just fire up a shot. In this case, he did that and he was wide-open, which isn't always the case. The Panthers got another big defensive effort from Birch—a blocked shot, that led to a steal from Gibbs. Though the Panthers couldn't convert anything on the next position, Birch's play led to some other stand-up plays. Woodall—on the next defensive series—stayed in the lane to draw a charge. On the other end, Taylor finished off the possession with a dunk. LaSalle was forced to call a timeout, as Pitt regained a 59-53 lead with 5:41 left.
Woodall was called for an intentional foul on Tyreek Duren, after Pitt opened up another safe lead. Duren converted both of his free throws, to make it a 65-58 game. The Explorers made it interesting up to the final minute of play. They brought the full court press to force a Pitt turnover. Duren converted a three-point play. On the ensuing in-bounds pass, Pettis came up with the steal and the putback. Pitt clung to a 68-66 lead.
Facing a tight man-to-man defense, and Woodall back in the game and playing with four fouls, Woodall took a risk on a drive, but it was LaSalle called for the foul. On the in-bounds pass, Woodall raced to the other end of the floor where he was wide-open for an easy lay-up. Pitt went up 72-66, and was able to hold on despite a late three-pointer by Pettis.
Mills came up with a steal with 12 seconds left, then pushed the ball the length of the court. It looked as if he would take it in for an easy layup, but he was blocked by Woodall—Woodall's third block of the night. Taylor came up with the loose ball for Pitt, and was fouled on the play. He converted 1-of-2 shots to close it out.
Stay tuned for more from the Petersen Events Center.