Light It Up!

Pitt men's basketball coach Jamie Dixon subscribes to the theory that practice makes perfect, so naturally the Panthers' improved play in a resounding 98-79 victory against DePaul Sunday afternoon at the Petersen Events Center was primarily due to three strong practices the previous week.

And who could argue? Pittsburgh (22-8, 10-8) has won three of its final four games and scored the most points in a Big East game since beating Providence 101-82 Jan. 2, 1991. Six Pitt players -- DeJuan Blair (22 points), Sam Young (19), Gilbert Brown (13), Keith Benjamin (12), Levance Fields and Ronald Ramon (11 each) -- scored in double figures against DePaul (11-19, 6-12).

"We were pointing toward these last four games, and ... especially this last week of practice,'' Dixon said. "It was a great week for us with three practices that were far more physical. The drills were more physical, and we were able to do more things with Levance able to practice hard for the first time this year.

"To have probably our best game of the year on the last one, I think it's really come together for a team that's been through a lot that most teams would have shut down from. This is a good time to be going in (to the Big East Tournament). We're playing our best basketball right now.

"We've won three of our last four,'' Dixon added, "and we've had our best practices since we had numbers early in the year. And now we've put ourselves in a position. We've won 22 games, more than anybody thought when we had two starters go down, and we've got to get ready for Wednesday.''

Pitt is the seventh seed in the Big East Tournament and plays the 10th seed, either Cincinnati or Syracuse, Wednesday at 7 p.m. If Cincinnati beats Connecticut tonight, Pitt plays the Orange. If UConn wins, Pitt plays Cincinnati. The first-round winner gets No. 2 Louisville Thursday night at 7.

"I'm just proud of where this team's at,'' Dixon said. "Everybody had us as an NIT team when those guys went down, maybe not even an NIT team. That's what everybody wrote and talked about, but we're in a good position now and are playing our best basketball.''

Pitt certainly showed improvement in all areas against DePaul. Both teams missed their first four shots in the game, and the Blue Demons started 2-for-13 from the field, as Pitt opened a 12-point lead, 18-6, just 7:21 into the game. However, DePaul made 13 of 20 afterward to trail 45-39 at halftime.

Pitt shot well the entire game, 56.1 percent overall (37-for-66), and out-rebounded DePaul by a 46-27 margin with Blair leading the way (14 boards). Fields also tied a season-best with nine rebounds and nearly had a triple-double with nine assists. Brown and Young chipped in with five rebounds each.

"Somebody in the crowd and Brandin (Knight) told me (about the triple-double), but I didn't get it,'' Fields said. "As long as we win, though, it's all good. ... My stats were better all around, but I think I've been feeling good throughout. I was just missing shots. But it was good to get a win on Senior Day.

"We were pretty efficient on offense. We communicated well on D, but they made some tough shots. ... Overall, I think we played very well. Everybody was talking and helping one another, and offensively we ran our plays all the way through and executed them. So, it was a good game.''

The Panthers got two 3-pointers from Ramon early in the second half to open a close game, but DePaul continued to battle back behind freshman Dar Tucker (23 points, seven rebounds) and senior Draelon Burns (18). Mac Koshival, a 6-10 freshman center, added 12 points and seven rebounds, as the Blue Demons closed to within six points, 62-56, with 13:51 remaining.

However, Benjamin hit three straight 3-pointers, capped by a four-point play after DePaul got close, to quickly put Pitt ahead by 10. The score was never that close afterward, and Pitt's lead steadily improved toward the end.

"That definitely helped my confidence, but I was able to get some good looks,'' Benjamin said. "Sometimes, you knock them down, and sometimes you don't. But I was able to hit a few shots today, and that really helped me. It felt good to get that first one, and I gained confidence with each one.''

Pitt leaves Tuesday morning for the Big East Tournament.

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