Created on Wednesday, 14 November 2012 06:14 Written by RJ Sepich / Sports Editor
Captions by Jasper Wilson, Assistant Sports Editor.
It may be just November, but the Pitt men’s basketball team is already winning tournament games — and convincingly.
For the second straight evening at the Petersen Events Center, the Panthers (3-0) advanced in the National Invitation Tournament Season Tip-Off bracket with an impressive performance. This time, Pitt qualified for the tournament’s semifinals with a resounding 78-53 victory over a talented and experienced Lehigh (1-2) team.
The semifinal will set up the Panthers’ first matchup against a ranked team this season, with No. 5 Michigan to be the opponent at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Nov. 21 at a to-be-determined time.
Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon was very pleased with how his team performed in the important early season clash.
“Everyone played well — all 10 of our guys,” Dixon said after the game. “It’s a good win against a very good team. I liked how we did it.”
Early on, it appeared that the Panthers would cruise to their third consecutive easy victory of the season when junior forward Lamar Patterson stretched Pitt’s advantage to 12-5 after converting a layup and free throw after a nice slash to the hoop.
But Lehigh — a team familiar with causing upsets after it famously stunned No. 2-seed Duke in last season’s NCAA Tournament — quickly battled back with the help of star senior guard C.J. McCollum, who, along with Pitt’s freshman center Steven Adams, drew more than a dozen NBA scouts to the Pete for the contest.
The two signature moments of the first half both came from the two legitimate future professionals on the court.
First, McCollum drained a deep 3-pointer, turned to Pitt’s student section — the Oakland Zoo — and put his pointer finger to his lips, suggesting that the rowdy students should quiet down. But Adams got Pitt fans on their feet when he swatted a shot attempt into the seats, recording his first block of the game.
McCollum had few words when asked about the Oakland Zoo after the game.
“It was a pretty good atmosphere,” he said.
At the end of a back-and-forth opening 20 minutes, the Panthers found themselves ahead of the Mountain Hawks, 35-30.
Pitt extended that lead after the break thanks to the star of the game — and it wasn’t the solid Adams or the relatively quiet McCollum.
After leading the team with 11 first-half points, junior forward Talib Zanna scored the Panthers’ first seven points of the second period, helping to quickly turn what was a close game into a lopsided affair.
“He works extremely hard,” Dixon said of Zanna. “In some ways, he’s kept his game simpler. He’s doing what he does well. We’ve always known he was going to be a very good player.”
Thanks in large part to Zanna, who finished with 20 points and six rebounds, Pitt went on a 14-2 run early in the second half as the Panthers began to pull away.
With his second 20-point game of the young season, Zanna has displayed an improved offensive game and a refined mid-range jump shot.
“I worked on that a lot this summer in the gym,” Zanna said when asked specifically about his jump shot.
Pitt’s other star performer of the evening, Tray Woodall, stated that the Panthers played an aggressive style of basketball to break the game open.
“I think we came out with a lot of fire [in the second half],” he said. “We didn’t want to settle.”
Dixon liked how Woodall displayed leadership by dictating the pace of the game.
“He’s running the offense,” the Pitt head coach said of his senior point guard. “It starts with his intensity and commitment. I think he did a good job of driving and not settling for [3-pointers]. He got in the lane a lot and made some good decisions.”
Woodall finished with 23 points, eight assists and four rebounds to lead another efficient outing from the Pitt offense.
Pitt essentially won the game because of its domination in two crucial statistical categories: rebounds and assists. The Panthers finished with 38 boards and 17 helpers, while the Mountain Hawks tallied only 22 rebounds and five assists.
Looking to extend its winning streak to six games — starting back in last season — Pitt will welcome the Oakland Grizzlies to the Petersen Events Center on Saturday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. before traveling to the Big Apple to face the Wolverines next Wednesday.
Coach Dixon now wants to make sure his team doesn’t overlook the Grizzlies, as the marquee matchup with Michigan draws closer.
“We’ll have Thursday and Friday to prepare for Oakland, and I think we’ll be ready to go Saturday. That [Michigan] game is eight days away,” he said.