The Pittsburgh Panthers went the first seven games of the season without a less-than-impressive game performance. But even after a lethargic start against Penn State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the Panthers showed off their resilience in a 78-69 victory at the Petersen Events Center, Tuesday.
Pittsburgh had been beating opponents by 25 points per game (83-to-58) in the team’s first seven affairs and were rarely challenged. Penn State took to Pittsburgh early by double-teaming and trapping guards on the perimeter. At first, this definitely slowed Pitt’s roll and the guards all seemed frustrated and flustered. Midway through the first half, Pitt had five turnovers and only five made field goals. The Panthers trailed by seven points with two minutes remaining in the half.
However, the tough-natured style coach Jamie Dixon‘s teams have been known for started to creep through before the half ended. Pittsburgh began attacking the post with drives — Michael Young was fouled and Lamar Patterson scored on a layup — which helped open up a three-pointer for Durand Johnson. Penn State still led at half, but it was evident Pitt decided the game needed to be a battle in the paint.
Pitt’s aggressiveness on offense may be the team’s greatest trait this season. Pittsburgh continued to go at Penn State’s frontline in the second half and finally broke through when Talib Zanna delivered a huge block on defense and Patterson scooped in the paint for two. Penn State hung around, but Pitt found an offense to rely on for the remainder of the game. Zanna scored on the next possession as Patterson drove-and-dished, Josh Newkirk nailed a short jumper and Cameron Wright swept in for a layup to give Pitt a 56-49 lead. Penn State actually took a lead later, but Patterson nailed a three-pointer that gave the Panthers a lead they would go on to hold because of some solid defense and drives to the paint on offense. Zanna finished with a double-double of 16 points and 10 rebounds.
This is a great sign going forward for the Panthers. Even when Penn State bullied Pittsburgh around, the Panthers stayed confident in their plan. Pitt continued to chip away, did not let the threat of a home upset disrupt the game-plan and walked away a stronger team because of it.
Pittsburgh desperately needed a game like this and with the ACC season still a month away, this could stand as the wake-up call every team needs when the schedule is not filled with tough out-of-conference games. Pitt will probably roll through its remaining December opponents and when conference play tips-off, the Panthers will be a team no one will want to mess with.