Men’s Basketball: Panthers struggle over break

By Lauren Kirschman

For the first time in more than a decade, the Pitt men’s basketball team started the Big East… For the first time in more than a decade, the Pitt men’s basketball team started the Big East Conference season with two consecutive losses.

The Panthers, who are in the midst of a three-game losing streak, haven’t started conference play with two straight losses since the 1999-2000 season.

For more than 10 years, Pitt has been a staple in the Top 25 and at the top of the Big East Conference. But the Panthers fell out of the Top 25 for the first time in 40 weeks on Monday and are currently at the bottom of the Big East standings.

Pitt’s depleted roster doesn’t help — the Panthers are playing without starting point guard Travon Woodall, who suffered an abdominal tear and groin strain earlier this season, and freshman center Khem Birch, who left the program after 10 games at Pitt.

Pitt started the season shooting well, particularly from the outside, but during its three-game losing streak the Panthers are shooting 16.7 percent from beyond the arc.

Leading scorer Ashton Gibbs — one of the nation’s top 3-point shooters last season — has hit just three shots from beyond the arc during the losing streak.

The Panthers’ production inside isn’t helping, as starting center Dante Taylor managed just two points and no field goals against Cincinnati’s depleted frontcourt.

Pitt 69, South Carolina State 55

He played just five minutes, but Malcolm Gilbert quickly became a fan favorite on Dec. 17.

The Panthers defeated South Carolina State 69-55 a day after freshman starting center Khem Birch — a McDonald’s All-American — decided to leave the program.

As a result, 6-foot-11 freshman center Gilbert played for the first time since seeing the floor for a minute against Long Beach State in Pitt’s third game of the season.

Gilbert provided the Panthers with depth inside in the first half, but he didn’t see the floor in the second half. After entering the game to a loud cheer from the crowd, Gilbert finished the game with two points and one rebound.

He ended the first half with a powerful dunk that gave the Panthers a 31-26 advantage at the break and excited the depleted Oakland Zoo student section.

Redshirt sophomore Talib Zanna performed well inside in Birch’s absence, finishing with a double-double — 12 points and 14 rebounds.

“In preseason, he was our best big guy,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said. “He’s given us really good minutes. I’m very comfortable with him and what he’s doing.”

Pitt struggled for most of the game, pulling away with a 12-3 run in the second half to build a 46-37 lead with 11:24 remaining.

After the Bulldogs pulled within two points, 36-34, John Johnson hit two foul shots, and Lamar Patterson followed with two straight layups.

Khalif Toombs answered with a 3-pointer for South Carolina State, but then Johnson and J.J. Moore each scored a layup, and Zanna added a tip-in to boost the score to 48-37.

The Panthers maintained a comfortable lead for the remainder of the game.

Patterson scored a career-high 16 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out three assists.

“I just want to be aggressive, stay confident in myself. And my teammates have confidence in me,” Patterson said. “I just want to be out there making plays for everybody.”

Pitt 71, St. Francis 47

Pitt handily defeated St. Francis University on Dec. 20.

Moore and Taylor led Pitt to the 71-47 win with 14 and 15 points, respectively.

The Panthers, who entered the game leading the nation in rebounding margin (12), continued their dominance on the glass against St. Francis. Pitt outrebounded the Red Flash 42-21.

The Panthers jumped out to an early 23-point lead against the Red Flash, who entered the game shooting 48 percent from the field. St. Francis missed its first eight shots of the game, and Pitt held the Red Flash to 35 percent shooting.

It took St. Francis more than six minutes to score its first points.

Pitt was able to slow the game down and get the ball in the paint to both Taylor and Moore. Easy layups and thunderous dunks by both players contributed to the 44-16 scoring advantage for Pitt in the paint.

With starting point guard Woodall still out and Gibbs having a relatively quiet night with nine points, Pitt looked once again to the contributions of others.

Patterson shot 4-7 from the field and collected 11 points, while Taylor dominated the boards to pull in eight rebounds. Cameron Wright also had eight points.

Gilbert and Zanna each saw minutes off the bench. Gilbert played 16 minutes, collecting three rebounds, two blocks and two points. Zanna shot 3-of-5 from the field, grabbed five rebounds and contributed six points.

Pitt 54, Wagner 59

Wagner head coach Danny Hurley told his players to make sure their phones were charged after the Seahawks defeated the then-No. 15 Pitt men’s basketball team on Dec. 23.

He said they could expect plenty of calls and texts after Wagner’s 59-54 victory at the Petersen Events Center — the Panthers’ second loss in the building this season.

After losing just one nonconference game in the Petersen Events Center before this year — to Bucknell in 2005 — Pitt lost two nonconference games in its home building this season.

“Everybody wants to beat a top-ranked team,” Wagner’s Kenneth Ortiz said. “We had our chance, and we made the best of it. [Latif Rivers and I] talked about this our whole life … about how we wanted to do big things. Hopefully we keep it going.”

Wagner hadn’t beaten a ranked opponent since 1978, and Pitt entered the game 70-0 against Northeastern Conference opponents.

Pitt junior Taylor said that both Wagner and Long Beach State — the other team to beat the Panthers at home this season — came in and played with more intensity than their host.

“We let them rush us on a lot of things instead of taking our time,” Taylor said.

Dixon called the loss “disappointing in every way.”

“I can’t really point to a lot of things that we did well,” Dixon said. “Our offense, well, the numbers don’t lie.”

The Panthers turned the ball over 18 times and shot just 19-48 field and 6-17 from the 3-point line. Gibbs led Pitt with 14 points but shot 5-of-16 from the field and 1-of-7 from the 3-point line.

He was the only Pitt player to reach double figures.

Patterson said the Panthers were impatient and rushed their offense.

“[Woodall] would’ve helped a lot today with the pressure,” Patterson said. “He’s also our leader. He calms us down out there. I think that was the problem; we got a little ahead of ourselves.”

Pitt went into the break trailing 29-25 and didn’t take the lead in the second half. The Seahawks held a 12-point advantage with 12:01 left in the game.

The Panthers trimmed the Wagner lead to three on several occasions, including with nine seconds left in the game, but turnovers on key possessions kept Pitt from tying the game or taking the lead.

Pitt 59, Notre Dame 72

The Pitt men’s basketball team’s continued struggles led to its second consecutive loss on Dec. 27.

The Panthers underwhelmed both offensively and defensively in their 72-59 loss at Notre Dame in the Big East opener.

The return of starting point guard Woodall, who came off the bench, didn’t help.

Pitt gave up an early 19-12 lead in the first half but still managed to go into the break with a 26-25 advantage.

But while the Panthers kept the score close in the first half, Notre Dame shot 72 percent after the break — including from 62.5 percent from the 3-point line — to pull away in the second.

Notre Dame claimed the advantage for good on an Alex Dragicevich layup with 17:03 left in the game.

The Fighting Irish hit three consecutive 3-pointers in the second half to boost their 50-42 lead to 59-44, and the Panthers never recovered.

Pitt, a team traditionally known for its defense, allowed Notre Dame open looks from the perimeter and easy layups in the paint.

Notre Dame shot 50.9 percent from the floor and 36.8 percent from beyond the arc while the Panthers shot 40 percent from the field and a dismal 7.1 percent from beyond the arc.

Johnson made Pitt’s only 3-pointer.

Three Notre Dame starters reached double figures. Dragicevich led the Irish with 22 points while Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant each added 15 points. Jack Cooley finished with eight points and 14 rebounds.

Pitt 63, Cincinnati 66

Pitt had two attempts to tie the game with seconds remaining, but the Panthers were unable to convert a 3-point shot and lost their third consecutive game on Sunday night.

The 66-63 loss to Cincinnati marked the first time the Panthers have lost three straight games since the 2007-2008 season.

Cincinnati’s Jaquon Parker missed the front end of a one-and-one with 28 seconds left, and Pitt grabbed the rebound. But freshman guard Johnson attempted to drive the hoop and got called for the charge, turning the ball back over to Cincinnati.

Sean Kilpatrick missed another front end of a one-and-one for the Bearcats on the next possession. Gibbs missed a 3-pointer for Pitt, but Patterson grabbed the offensive rebound. Pitt called timeout to set up a play, but Patterson missed Pitt’s final 3-point attempt to seal the victory for Cincinnati.

“We’re going to be fine,” Gibbs said. “No struggle, no reward. That’s something I live by and something we’re going through right now … At the end of the day, you’ve just got to play harder … At the end of the day, this team [Pitt] is capable of beating anybody.”

The Panthers continued with their offensive woes. Johnson and senior power forward Nasir Robinson did their best to keep the Pitt in the game, but even Robinson’s 19 points and 10 rebounds and Johnson’s five assists couldn’t make up for the Panthers’ struggles against Cincinnati’s defense and pressure.

The Bearcats finished the night with 11 steals and scored 20 points off 17 Pitt turnovers.

Dixon said that Pitt needs more players to create shots with penetration.

“We need to get more penetration, I think, and get to the basket more,” Dixon said. “We’re not getting enough of it. We don’t have enough guys getting other guys shots with penetration. That’s something we were doing better earlier in the year that we aren’t doing now.”

Johnson was the only Pitt player able to consistently drive into the lane and create plays throughout the game. Dixon said the Panthers ran a play to get Johnson in the lane on the second to last possession.

After playing off the bench against Notre Dame, starting point guard Woodall didn’t play against Cincinnati as he’s still recovering from an abdominal tear and groin strain he suffered earlier this season.

Pitt struggled defensively as well. The Bearcats shot 48 percent in the second half, including 50 percent from the 3-point line.

Robinson said that Pitt needed to perform better defensively, and Gibbs added that the Panthers have played “so-so defense” so far this season.

“[We need to] keep practicing,” Robinson said. “Don’t hang our heads. Move on to the next game, and try to learn form our mistakes. We had some good practices this week.”

Cincinnati, currently missing three players — 6-foot-9 Octavius Ellis, 6-foot-10 Cheikh Mbodj and 6-foot-9 Yancy Gates — due to suspensions stemming from the fight against Xavier, continued with its small, four-guard lineup against the Panthers.

Dixon said he emphasized the importance of getting the ball inside this week, particularly with the Panthers’ shooting struggles on the perimeter. He said the Panthers wanted hit shots inside and out.

“We had some really good looks that we didn’t knock down,” Dixon said. “We ran a lot of plays for Nasir [Robinson] and Dante [Taylor] against the zone. We got some inside touches, but we didn’t finish as well as we wanted to.”

Taylor, Pitt’s starting center, finished with two points but grabbed 11 rebounds. After power forward Zanna suffered a blow to the face and nose during the first half, starting power forward Robinson was forced to play at the center position.

Zanna experienced concussion-like symptoms and didn’t return to the game.

Against the undersized Bearcats, the Panthers should’ve been able to take advantage inside, something that Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said he anticipated. But Pitt scored just two more points than the Bearcats in the paint (30 to 28).

The Panthers will look to end their three-game losing streak at DePaul on Thursday.

“We can’t make excuses,” Dixon said. “We have the guys to get it done.”

Kelly Flanigan contributed to this story.