Men’s Basketball: Pitt defeats Robert Morris

By Lauren Kirschman

The Pitt men’s basketball team received more than a spark from its bench Sunday night.

The… The Pitt men’s basketball team received more than a spark from its bench Sunday night.

The Panthers’ bench scored 29 points in Pitt’s 81-71 win over Robert Morris at the Petersen Events Center, including 13 points from redshirt freshman guard Cameron Wright. Wright — who also finished with two steals — reached double figures for the first time in his career.

“I got going on defense,” Wright said. “I got amped up and my teammates got amped up for me. This was my first really good game.”

Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon agreed that Wright let defense create his offense.

“It was great to see him play well,” Dixon said. “He let things come to him, got some drives, moved well without the basketball.”

The win cinched the the Philly Hoop Group Classic title for the Panthers. The round-robin-style tournament included Pitt, Robert Morris, La Salle, Penn, James Madison and Rider.

Also coming off the bench, redshirt sophomore Talib Zanna contributed a double-double with 10 points and 15 rebounds while freshman guard John Johnson scored six points, including shooting 2-2 from beyond the arc.

Two other players who normally come off the bench — J.J. Moore and Khem Birch — capitalized on the extra playing time as they both started for the second consecutive game this season. Birch and Moore started in place of small forward Lamar Patterson and center Dante Taylor. Patterson was suspended for two games for undisclosed reasons and Taylor is out because of migraines.

Coming off a 15-point, 10-rebound performance during Friday’s game against Penn, Birch finished with eight points, 11 rebounds and six blocks against Robert Morris. Moore contributed eight points on 3-9 shooting.

Robert Morris head coach Andrew Toole said that even with two Pitt players sitting out, he knew his team still had to watch out for Pitt’s bench players who use the extra playing time to show that they deserve minutes.

“We know they are talented players,” Toole said. “We know they are going to come in and have an impact in the game. Zanna was incredible on the glass … too many times tonight as I watched, I saw my guys watching.”

Birch said the increased playing time means he’s playing with more confidence.

“I’m playing more minutes now, and I’m doing good in practice,” he said. “Last game I did good, and I just took that into this game and tried to do my best.”

Robert Morris guard Velton Jones, whom the Panthers held to 10 points on 1-14 shooting, said Birch was particularly difficult to score against inside.

“I don’t think we’ll face somebody that’s that long this year,” he said. “When I was in the lane, shots that I normally get up, he was blocking them.”

Jones is the Colonials’ leading scorer this season, averaging 19.4 points per game.

With the score tied 6-6 less than five minutes into the game, the Panthers used a 13-2 run to pull away from the Colonials and take a 20-point lead into the break.

Ashton Gibbs started the scoring spurt with a steal and a subsequent layup. Birch followed by making one shot from the free throw line, and then Wright grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a putback to push Pitt’s lead to 12-6.

Robert Morris forward Lawrence Bridges broke up the Panther scoring spree with a basket inside, but Johnson answered by hitting a contested three at the other end. Wright scored breakaway baskets on two consecutive steals, but was called for a technical foul for hanging on the rim on the second.

With the score 18-8, guard Coron Williams hit the two technical foul shots to close the gap to 19-10, but the Panthers followed with a three and a jumpshot from Gibbs and two straight baskets inside from Zanna to make the score to 28-12.

Pitt entered the break with a 45-25 advantage.

“If you’re going to be a good team, you need to go out and execute and have poise and toughness from the tip,” Toole said. “Anybody can play from 20 down.”

Pitt held on to the large advantage for most of the contest — going ahead by 22 points, 60-30, with 11:39 left in the game — but the Colonials fought back. Robert Morris outscored Pitt 33-21 during the remainder of the game. With 1:49 remaining, a 3-pointer from Williams cut the Panthers’ lead to nine, 68-59.

“We were playing good defense as a unit, but give Robert Morris credit, they kept working hard,” Wright said. “They never gave up. They extended that last minute for a long time.”

A 3-pointer from Russell Johnson with 23 seconds left made the score 77-69. But the Colonials ran out of time and the Panthers sealed the win at the line, shooting 13-14 from the stripe down the stretch.

“I wish we could have finished a little better, but we knew they were going to do battle,” Dixon said. “That’s what they do.”

Gibbs led the Panthers with 21 points, but struggled from the field, shooting 6-17 including 2-7 from beyond the arc. Tray Woodall recorded his fourth double-double of the season with 12 points and 10 assists.

Williams led Robert Morris with 19 points, while Johnson added 17.