Men’s Basketball: Pitt wins first game without Birch

By Lauren Kirschman

He played just five minutes, but Malcolm Gilbert quickly became a fan favorite on Saturday… He played just five minutes, but Malcolm Gilbert quickly became a fan favorite on Saturday night

The Pitt men’s basketball team 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 off the bench in the first half, but 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.

Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said that a back injury and the lack of minutes in the front court kept Gilbert off the floor this season, but added that with Birch’s departure minutes will open up.

Dixon said he received no indication that Birch was considering leaving the program before the last two days.

“We had a lot of conversations all throughout the year,” Dixon said. “He’s a quiet kid. [I was] just trying to get a feel for what he was thinking and joking with him about different things. It was really within the last two days, no question about it. That’s when it first came about.”

Nothing has been decided as far as releasing Birch from his scholarship, Dixon said. If Dixon releases Birch from his scholarship, he will be eligible to play at another school two semesters from now. He said that he spoke to Birch last night and to Birch’s mother this morning to make sure that Birch arrived home safely.

Dixon said that he doesn’t anticipate that Birch will return to the team.

“We’ve got a number of players here that are excited to be here,” Dixon said. “Our success has been based on kids who love to live in the city of Pittsburgh. They love being here and they love the University of Pittsburgh. That’s where our success will continue to be.”

Redshirt sophomore Lamar Patterson said the Panthers are worried about their season, not Birch’s departure.

“I just wish the best for him,” Patterson said. “He was part of the team and I guess he’s not now. We just got to worry about us now.”

Senior Nasir Robinson said that Birch didn’t give his teammates any indication that he was considering leaving the team.

“He’s a freshman, he was starting,” Robinson said. “I couldn’t tell in body language or anything. He was himself. It just happened.”

With Birch gone, Robinson said the younger players, like Gilbert, and the rest of the Panthers need to step up.

“Anybody that drives to the basket [Gilbert’s] down there and he’s going to change their shot,” Robinson said. “He brought a lot of energy and size in there.”

Dixon said that Gilbert has been playing well and progressing in practice, adding that his teammates have confidence in him.

“He’s ready to play,” Dixon said. “I should have played him more [in the game]. It was such a slow game with holding the ball and the zone. It never really 1-2-2 zone. It never really got flowing.”

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,” 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 Patterson followed with two straight lay-ups.

Khalif Toombs answered with a 3-pointer for South Carolina State, but then Johnson and J.J. Moore each scored a lay-up 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.

Lamar 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.”

Dixon said he anticipates Patterson and J.J. Moore spending more time on the floor together. Moore finished with seven points and two rebounds.

After getting off to a slow start, Ashton Gibbs contributed 14 points and dished out six assists.

“I expected [Gibbs] to be a little more offensive minded but I think the zone affected that,” South Carolina State head coach Tim Carter said. “We wanted to decrease his penetration.”

Carter said he thought the zone gave the Bulldogs a chance to pull off the upset and Dixon said the Panthers need to do a better job against the zone.

Dixon added that Gibbs might be playing too many minutes — he played 38 minutes against South Carolina State — with Travon Woodall still sitting out with a abdominal tear and groin strain.

The team will know better tomorrow when Woodall will return, Dixon said.

Even though redshirt freshman point guard Isaiah Epps is playing well — Epps played two minutes against the Bulldogs — Dixon said the team is more comfortable with Gibbs on the floor.

Dixon also said that the Bulldogs’ performance beyond the arc kept the game close. South Carolina State shot 8-14 from the 3-point line while the Panthers shot just 5-23 from deep.

The Panthers fell behind 20-18 with 4:46 left in the first before Gibbs scored his first points on a 3-pointer and ignited a 9-0 Pitt run.

Gibbs scored again on a lay-up the next time down the floor and Zanna followed with two consecutive lay-ups to give the Panthers a 27-20 advantage.

South Carolina State pulled within three points with 29 seconds left in the half, but Gilbert scored on a dunk inside as time expired in the first half.