Pitt 70, Villanova 65

It's been said that defense wins championships, so it should be no surprise that the Pitt men's basketball team has been tenacious on the offensive boards and at the other end of the court to inch a step closer to capturing the Big East Conference regular-season title.

No. 19 Pittsburgh beat No. 3 Villanova, 70-65, Sunday afternoon at the Petersen Events Center. The Panthers (21-6, 10-4) held the Wildcats (22-4, 11-3) to 20 points less than their regular-season average.

"Our defense really was the key,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We did a great job defensively and came out with a win against a very good team. We just couldn't put them away, but we ... still got a win against a real good team and continue to improve and get better.

"We've probably improved as much as any team in the country from November to February, but we still have plenty of room to improve and plenty of things that we can do better. ... We went through a stretch where we didn't rebound as well, but we did a good job today.''

Pitt has won five straight now, after losing four of five, to get back into the face for the Big East title. The Panthers are in the top four with Villanova, Syracuse and West Virginia and have wins against all three, including a spit with WVU. But this one against the Wildcats was circled for a while on the calendar.

It was the first meeting between the two teams since Villanova beat Pitt 78-76 in an NCAA Elite Eight matchup in Boston, Mass., as the Wildcats' Scottie Reynolds basically scored on a coast-to-coast layup as time ran out. While there certainly is some measure of revenge for the Panthers, senior guard Jermaine Dixon preferred to focus on the future.

"It means that we're a step closer to winning the Big East regular season,'' Jermaine Dixon said. "Last year, we put it past us, and now that this game is over it's a step for us to (win) the Big East regular season. ... We've talked about this from the beginning of the year.

"And now with four games left, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Providence and St. John's ... they're all good teams. They're tough, and the Big East is a tough Conference. So, we have to go out and work as hard as we can to get ready for Notre Dame. We have to go to Notre Dame.''

Pitt led nearly the entire game, including a 10-point bulge 23-13 with about eight minutes remaining in the first half, and the Panthers held a 58-52 advantage with less than two minutes remaining. So, it was amazing that Villanova was able to reach the 60s let alone contend for the win.

In fact, Pitt sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs, who led all scorers with 21 points, could have sealed the win a lot earlier at the free-throw line. But the 90-percent shooter from the stripe made just 1 of 4 attempts with about 45 seconds remaining. But his teammates picked up the pace.

Redshirt junior Gilbert Brown was 1-for-2 from the line and scored 16 points, including a powerful dunk off a baseline drive with 1:29 remaining, while redshirt freshman guard Travon Woodall made all four of his free throws to put the game away. Gibbs was 2-for-2 with 1.4 seconds left to set the final score.

"I think, with this team, we have multiple players who can step up at the end of the game,'' Brown said. "(Anyone) can get the job done when we need it. ... I guess you could say that we're a different type of team, because we don't have just one player up there with the main players on the other teams, but we're a good team overall. And I think that's what makes us strong.

"I think it was just a great team effort for us in the first half, to control Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher and hold them to minimum points. They got hot at the end, but we were able to pick up our offense, and that was one of the big factors in us winning. And we were able to control the boards. ... We had a good edge on the boards (40-34) and a big edge on the offensive glass (21-12).''

Gibbs believed that Pitt's defensive performance begins in practice, and that effort just carries over to the games. And it's a big reason why the Panthers are 7-0 now all-time at the Pete against teams ranked in the top five.

"Our defense, it really starts in practice, (because) we really get after it in practice,'' Gibbs said. "We stress defense and rebounding. We get after it, and it just carries over to the game. ... Our defense and our toughness is the difference. We won't back down from anyone.

"And that's something we get from our coaches. We work hard each and every day in practice, and it carries over into the games. We get a great scouting report to prepare us for the games, and we just look forward to the games. And we go out and play hard.''

Brown placed the credit elsewhere.

"The Oakland Zoo and the Petersen Events Center,'' Brown said. "This is one of the toughest places to play in the country. I feel as though the Petersen Events Center brings a different type of atmosphere during the game with everybody jumping up and down and everybody applauding every time a basket is made. It's one of a kind.''

And so is this Pitt basketball team.

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