A win over a last-place team, no matter what the score, or how ugly it may have been is still a big win overall.
Just ask Michigan, who fell 84-78 at the hands of the Penn State Nittany Lions, who hadn't won a conference game all year. That's a win Michigan could have had, yet one that may cost them a shot at a number-one seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Pitt toppled South Florida 64-44 on Wednesday night to improve to 22-7 overall, and more importantly 10-6 in Big East play. The Panthers sit a half game behind Notre Dame and Syracuse in the conference standings, in sole possession of sixth place, for the moment.
"I think it was a good game for us," head coach Jamie Dixon said. "We learned to work against (South Florida's patience). The defense was good, the rebounding was good all the way through."
Travon Woodall--despite battling foul trouble--led Pitt with 14 points. Dante Taylor came off the bench to lead Pitt with 12 points and 10 rebounds. It was Taylor's first game in double-figures in his last 19, and first double-double of the season. Steven Adams added a career-high five blocked shots. Victor Rudd led South Florida with 16 points and 7 rebounds.
Pitt shot 59.1% in the second half, on 13-22 shooting. Woodall said at halftime, Dixon gave the team free reign of the floor.
"He wasn't calling any plays, just letting guys to out and play basketball," Woodall explained. "He let us play, didn't call any sets. He just let us play basketball.
"My freshman year is probably the last time I heard it. It's good to hear it tonight. Guys did a great job. Maybe that's coaching, adjusting, and getting players into the game. That's a great job. It gave everybody confidence."
Things did not start off right for Pitt. They started off 1-5 from the floor, as South Florida took an early 14-6 lead.
Pitt tried to work inside against the Bulls at the start of the game. Both of South Florida's leading scorers are forwards Rudd and Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, Pitt's inside guys were going to need a good game offensively and defensively.
Unfortunatley, Adams missed two early shots, and picked up a quick first foul. He went to the bench, while Rudd scored seven of the first 14 points for South Flroida, resulting in the early lead.
In addition to starting off just 1-5 from the field, the only other points Pitt got in the first five minutes came on an isolation basket from Woodall. Woodall also picked up an early first foul. He battled foul trouble for most of the game, only playing eight minutes of the first half, and picking up his third less than seven minutes into the second half. A jumper from Jowanza Poland gave South Florida that 14-6 lead with 12:38 left in the first half. Dixon had to call timeout.
Pitt responded with an 8-0 run to tie the game up. With Woodall on the bench after that first foul, Pitt came out of the timeout with James Robinson, Cameron Wright, Durand Johsnon and J.J. Moore. Between all five, they average a combined 27.1 points. In a span of three minutes, this group turned an eight-point deficit into a 14-14 tie.
The run started with a three-pointer from Moore. The guy who provided the biggest spark on defense was Adams--two defensive rebounds and a blocked shot in consecutive defensive series.
Pitt took its first lead of the game on an easy bucket from Taylor. The Panthers led 18-17 with 6:22 left in the first half and led by as many as five in the final minutes of the half.
USF continued to get Pitt to the line. Judging from Pitt's 66.1% free throw shooting percentage for the season, it's not a bad game plan to get the Panthers to the line. In the first half, however, Pitt converted 11-14 free throws. It certainly offset Pitt's 7-26 (26.9%) shooting performance in the first half. South Florida head coach Stan Heath said fouling wasn't part of the game plan.
"We don't like to foul a lot," Heath said. "We don't want to give up easy baskets, but we're not just bailing people out and putting them at the free throw line."
Dixon picked up a technical foul with 34.2 seconds left in the half. He felt that more than ten seconds had elapsed between the time South Florida guard Mike McCloskey started with possessn, and the time he got the bal to half court. After pleading his case with referee Mike Eades for quite awhile, Eades hit him with the technical. South Florida was able to make it a one-point game.
"I yelled ten seconds," Dixon said. "That's what it was. I yelled ten seconds, and I jumped up. (Evades) didn't like that. It wasn't any comment. It was me jumping up, and that's what you get."
South Florida kept it close in the early moments of the second half, taking an early 30-28 lead. Pitt then went on a 16-0 run over the next five and a half minutes; highlighted by consecutive baskets from Lamar Patterson. Those four points also happened to be Patterson's first points of the game.
Pitt also got a pair of three-pointers--from Woodall and Johnson. Woodall had to go to the bench, picking up his fourth foul on the defensive series after his three-pointer. Johnson stepped up in the absence of the senior floor general, hitting a three and giving Pitt a 38-30 lead--its biggest of the game.
Taylor got himself into double-figures on a layup, also giving Pitt a 42-30 lead, approaching the 10-minute mark of the game. He even took a chance on shooting a three-pointer--which would have been the first of his career. Moore was there for the rebound, and the putback. Pitt led 44-30, as South Florida head coach Stan Heath was forced to call his second timeout of the half.
The Panthers, despite shooting 26.9% in the first half, to South Florida's 37.5%, turned things around. They held the Bulls to just 6-23 (26.1%) shooting in the second half. Anthony Collins--who torched Pitt with a career-high 22 points in last year's meeting--didn't get his first points until five minutes left in the game; a credit to Robinson's defense.
"I just tried to stay in front of him the whole time," Robinson said. "I knew I had to give him space, yet stay aggressive."
"His defense was big for us," Dixon said. "The defending part of it, he's picked up, and taken to a high level. He takes pride in what he's doing defensively."
Interestingly, Heath felt Robinson is a good player, but didn't feel that was the sole reason Collins was held in check.
"I think he's a good defender, I just thought Anthony missed some shots," Heath said. "Anthony went by him a few times, and had some layups and some short shots. I think the biggest thing is having those big guys inside. Anthony got by him a couple times--and that's no knock on Robinson--because he does that to everybody."