Pitt avoids season-opening upset
Pitt made sure the first game of the 2010-11 basketball season wasn’t also the year’s first upset.
The No. 5-ranked Panthers overcame an eight-point first-half deficit and held off Rhode Island, 83-75, on Monday night at Petersen Events Center.
In the nation’s first NCAA Division I men’s basketball game of the season, Pitt overcame a rare scare to win its 48th consecutive home game against a nonconference opponent.
“There’s a reason teams don’t want to play (Rhode Island), especially on Nov. 8,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “It’s a good, quality win. We got the game we thought we would get out of it.”
Senior Brad Wanamaker scored 24 points, and junior Ashton Gibbs added 22 as Pitt won the opener of the 2K Sports Classic Benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer tournament and improved to 97-1 in its past 98 home games against a non-Big East team.
But it wasn’t easy. The Panthers shot 3 of 16 from behind the arc and turned the ball over 14 times. They needed some clutch free throw shooting and a couple of big plays in the final two minutes to finally put away Rhode Island, picked to finish fifth in the Atlantic 10.
“I thought our kids really came out and fought the fight,” Rhode Island coach Jim Baron said. “We came in to try to win the game and, quite frankly, I think we were right there.”
Rhode Island, trying to defeat a ranked opponent for the first time in 20 tries dating to 1999, pulled to within 76-74 on Delroy James’ 3-pointer – his fifth of the game — with 1:35 to play.
With Pitt leading, 77-74, Rhode Island’s Akeem Richmond missed a 3-pointer and Wanamaker grabbed the rebound with 59 seconds to play. Pitt went 6 for 6 from the line in the final minute, and Gilbert Brown blocked James’ 3-point attempt with 14 seconds remaining to seal the win.
“Their three-point shooting kept them in just as we were about to pull away,” Dixon said. “We made plays at the end and executed and got baskets when we needed to.”
While most power-conference teams open the season with a lower-level opponent, Pitt took on a Rhode Island squad that returns three starters from a 26-win team that reached the NIT semifinals last season.
“It was a pretty intense game, especially playing a really good team this early in the season,” said Wanamaker, who added a team-high eight assists. “We usually don’t play a team of this caliber early on. I think it’s going to help us in the long run.”
Talib Zanna added nine points and a game-high 11 rebounds for Pitt. James scored 20 points, Richmond had 16 and Nikola Malesevic 13 for the Rams, who went 14 for 31 from 3-point range.
The pivotal moment of the night came in the final two minutes of the first half, when Pitt, which had trailed most of the game, put together a 9-0 run. Trailing 36-28, Pitt went into the locker room with a 37-36 halftime lead despite missing nine layups in the first half and going 1 for 7 from behind the 3-point line. Lamar Patterson’s dunk at the buzzer gave Pitt a 37-36 lead – its first lead since 13-11.
“We got the momentum going into halftime and we carried it over into the second half,” Gibbs said.
Added James, “That was probably the key point of the game.”
Pitt, by the coach’s count, missed nine layups in the first half, including point-blank misses by Wanamaker, Zanna and J.J. Richardson, among others.
“I joked that we did layup drills at halftime in the locker room,” Dixon said. “That was the biggest difference. We were getting good shots. We started making some layups.”