For a while Wednesday night, it appeared that South Florida would do the same thing to the No. 1-ranked Pitt men's basketball team. The Panthers and USF were tied twice in the first half, including 30-30 with 4:41 remaining, and the Bulls trailed by just four, 41-37, at the intermission. USF shot better than 57 percent in the first half.
"They came out shooting good, but I thought our defense was a little sluggish the whole game,'' Pittsburgh sophomore center DeJuan Blair said. "We can play way better defense than that, so we just have to step it up on defense. Point blank. Period. ... Maybe it was the delay. I don't know, but we have to pick it up.''
However, Pitt picked things up in the second half and pulled away for a 75-62 Big East win against USF at the Petersen Events Center. USF (6-10, 1-3) had transportation problems and arrived late, so the game began nearly a half-hour later than usual, but that didn't appear to hurt the Panthers (16-0, 4-0).
Pitt, which is off to the third-best start in the program's history, was led in scoring by senior Tyrell Biggs for the first time in his career. Biggs tallied 16 points in just 23 minutes. The only better starts for the Panthers were the 21-0 record of the 1927-28 team and the 18-0 that current Pitt coach Jamie Dixon guided them to during his initial season at the helm in 2003-04.
"I felt pretty good,'' Biggs said. "The rebounding and lay-ups I had, that got me going at first. I got a couple easy buckets after that, so that really got me going. And I was able to hit a couple shots from the outside after that.''
Senior forward Sam Young scored 14 points, despite shooting 4-for-14 from the field, while Blair added 13 points and 18 rebounds. Senior point guard Levance Fields had 11 points and a career-best 13 assists with just one turnover. Pitt had just eight turnovers, including three by shot-clock violation, for its third straight game with less than double-digit errors.
"I was just trying to make the good pass to get us some easy baskets,'' Fields said. "And the guys were making their shots. That's the only way I was able to get all those assists. The guys had to make their shots.''
Blair gets the majority of his baskets as put-backs from offensive rebounds, but he certainly recognizes the job that Fields does after the Big Fella posts up.
"I think he's the best point guard in the nation,'' Blair said. "He tries to get all his teammates involved, and he does an excellent job with that. And he gets on us when we don't make them, so when he gets me the ball I try to make them every time just because I don't want to hear his mouth.''
Blair, the nation's leading offensive rebounder, has 50 boards in his last three games. That's a spectacular average at more than 16 rebounds per game.
Dominique Jones and Augustus Gilchrist scored 22 points each for USF, while Chris Howard had 13. But the key was that USF was pounded on the boards by Blair and the Panthers, as there was a 37-23 rebounding disadvantage.
Pitt plays its next five games against teams which are nationally ranked or were there recently, which is going to happen on occasion in the Big East. That stretch begins at No. 20 Louisville Saturday at 6 p.m. and continues against Syracuse Monday at 7 at the Pete. Those should be a lot tougher than USF was believed to be, as the Bulls are are 8-46 in Big East play and 2-25 on the road. But they hit a succession of off-balance and tough-angle shots to rally from deficits of 7-0, 16-7 and 30-22 to keep the game close, and trailed only 41-39 early in the second half. That caused some nervous fans in the late-arriving, sellout crowd of 12,508 to wonder when the Panthers would shift gears.
That finally happened when Pitt went on a 15-4 run to stretch a 47-44 lead into a more comfortable 62-48 advantage with 8:51 remaining. The Panthers did much the same thing against St. John's Sunday, leading 41-36 at halftime before making it a rout in the second half and winning 90-67.
Fields hit a 3-pointer with 15:18 remaining to make it 50-44, and Biggs scored ahead of Bradley Wanamaker's 3-pointer that gave Pitt its first double-digit lead at 55-44. Young's 3-pointer pushed it to 60-47. Biggs, who had a career-high 19 points last season when he wasn't the leading scorer, was 7-for-10 from the field and always seemed to get a big basket against USF.
The Bulls, playing a No. 1 team for the third time in school history, might have gotten a burst of confidence from an 80-58 win at DePaul Saturday. That was only the second Big East road win for the Tampa, Fla.-based program.
South Florida's other games against No. 1 teams were a 75-39 loss to North Carolina Dec. 12, 1981 and an 89-72 loss to Cincinnati Jan. 29, 2000. The Bulls have lost 24 consecutive road games against ranked teams.
The start of the game was delayed 20 minutes by a rush-hour snowstorm that clogged city streets and caused South Florida's bus and the game officials to arrive late. Some spectators didn't arrive until close to halftime, and there were unaccustomed blocks of empty seats in the Petersen Events Center -- where Pitt has improved to 107-10 -- until the crowd eventually packed the place.
No. 1 Pitt 75, South Florida 62
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