Basketball: Pitt heads south for Backyard Brawl

By Greg Trietley

The Pitt men’s basketball team snapped an eight-game losing streak with home victories against… The Pitt men’s basketball team snapped an eight-game losing streak with home victories against Providence and No. 9 Georgetown last week, but to continue the climb from the Big East’s basement, the Panthers will have to do something they have struggled with this season: leave behind their home-court advantage and win in a hostile environment.

Pitt travels to Morgantown to face the West Virginia Mountaineers (15-7, 5-4 Big East) Monday at 7 p.m. in the 183rd basketball edition of the Backyard Brawl.

The Panthers (13-9, 2-7 Big East) are 2-4 in true road games this year, dropping their last four. The Mountaineers are undefeated in conference play at the West Virginia University Coliseum.

West Virginia enters the game coming off a controversial 63-61 loss on Saturday at No. 3 Syracuse. With fewer than 10 seconds to play, Orange center Baye Moussa Keita appeared to interfere with Mountaineer forward Deniz Kilicli’s game-tying layup on its way into the basket. The officiating crew, though, missed the goaltend, and the Mountaineers received their second consecutive loss.

“Do I think it was [a goaltend]? No. I know it was,” West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said in a press conference after the loss. “I saw the replay.”

The Mountaineers will try to move on from the controversy Monday, something that they couldn’t do when they maintained possession after the no-call.

“It’s hard,” Huggins said. “You’ve got 30 seconds, and you’re trying to get them refocused, and they’re all thinking about other things.”

Meanwhile, Pitt’s build up to the Backyard Brawl comes with a little more serenity thanks to the return of point guard Travon Woodall from abdominal and groin injuries. Woodall struggled against Louisville last Saturday in his first start back, but after tallying 19 assists in his last two games, it seems he is back to his old self.

“With Tray out there, it just allows guys to do more and be in a more comfortable role,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said after Saturday’s 72-60 win against Georgetown. Pitt had 20 assists on 25 field goals against the Hoyas.

Woodall averages 7.4 assists per game, although he does not lead the conference in that category because he has not played enough games to qualify.

“He is definitely a playmaker for us, and at the same time he’s a guy with experience,” senior guard Ashton Gibbs said after the Hoyas game. “In pressure situations, we know what we’re getting out of him. We have a lot of confidence in him and now that he’s back, I think the best is yet to come for this team.”

Gibbs leads the Panthers this year with 16.5 points per game.

Pitt beat Georgetown with strong play in the paint from senior Nasir Robinson, who finished Saturday’s game perfect from the field with 23 points and eight rebounds.

“He has a knack for being in the right place at the right time,” Dixon said. “He hurt them in zone defense, and he hurt them in man defense as well. He did a great job from the free-throw line, and I thought he did great defensively as well.”

But Robinson, Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor will have their hands full Monday with West Virginia’s Kevin Jones, a 6-foot-8 forward who can hit shots from the perimeter. The senior averages a double-double, registering 20.9 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. He leads the Big East in both scoring and rebounding.

Jones is one reason why West Virginia could be Pitt’s biggest challenge on the glass thus far. Only Pitt has a better rebounding margin in the Big East than West Virginia, and the physicality that comes with this rivalry should make it a true battle inside.

Senior guard Darryl Bryant complements Jones’ interior presence with 17.1 points per game, the sixth-best average in the conference. Jones and Bryant each play more than 36 minutes per game, as Huggins has struggled to find depth from his roster of four upperclassmen and nine freshmen.

The inexperience has hurt the Mountaineers defensively. They rank in the bottom half of the Big East, allowing an average of 66.3 points per game. Coming off one of its best offensive performances yet, Pitt will look to be the aggressors on the offensive side of the ball and take advantage of West Virginia’s youth.

Tipoff is set for 7 p.m., and the game will be covered by ESPN.