Men’s Basketball: Pitt throttles La Roche

By Greg Trietley

Pitt guard John Johnson’s full-court shot at the end of the first half didn’t count because… Pitt guard John Johnson’s full-court shot at the end of the first half didn’t count because he didn’t beat the buzzer, but that was about the only thing that didn’t go the Pitt men’s basketball team’s way Saturday.

The No. 10 Panthers showed why they received a top-10 ranking in the Associated Press’ preseason poll for the fourth time in six years as they thumped the Division III La Roche Redhawks, 101-33, in an exhibition contest at the Petersen Events Center.

“I think our guys did a good job of going out there and executing,” Pitt guard Travon Woodall said. “We did a good job of transitioning what we do in practice into the game.”

Freshman Khem Birch led Pitt with 16 points, and 13 different Panthers scored Saturday as coach Jamie Dixon rotated in every healthy player.

“We played a lot of guys,” Dixon said after the game. “Ashton [Gibbs] only played 20 and Travon [Woodall] 17. We really balanced it out.”

The Panthers not only distributed playing time well—they distributed the ball well, too, finishing with 27 assists on 38 baskets.

“The assists really stood out,” Dixon said. “We got a lot of lay-ups. I think really that’s the story of the game, our unselfishness… I’m the guy that focuses on the guy who got the guy the shot.”

Pitt finished 11-for-18 from three-point range and out-rebounded the Redhawks 42-24.

Birch and fellow freshman Malcolm Gilbert both had impressive debuts in Pitt’s frontcourt. Gilbert had two points, four rebounds and four blocks, including two blocks in a 22-second span late in the first half that brought the home crowd to its feet.

“I think it got the momentum moving a little bit,” Gilbert said. “It discouraged the offense and got the team hyped.”

Birch finished 7-7 from the floor and had five boards. He, Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna all saw time at both center and power forward as Dixon tinkered with a frontcourt overloaded with talent and short on minutes.

“We’re still figuring it out what we’re doing here,” Dixon said. “I’ve had so many different rotations out there, as you might expect at this time of the year, looking at different things.”

Birch said he is more confident playing power forward than center, but he believes he will play center when Nasir Robinson returns from his knee injury.

“I find it harder to play the five,” he said. “It’s more physical. Just the way the play is, the five is way harder to play than the four.”

La Roche head coach Harry Jenkins said after the game that Pitt’s size down low overwhelmed the Redhawks.

“We had some trouble with their size,” Jenkins said. “They can put a very talented, deep, tall team on the floor this year. That’s going to make quite a difference against a lot of the teams they’ll play.”

La Roche shot 25 percent from the floor against the stingy Panthers defense.

Senior guard Mike Dixon scored his team’s first seven points to keep La Roche in the game early, but the Redhawks started to turn the ball over as the first half wore on and allowed Pitt to attack the rim at the other end.

Dixon finished with a team-high 14 points, the only Redhawk in double digits. He played small forward for La Roche last year but moved to point guard this season.

“We’ve asked him to do a lot for this group,” Jenkins said. “Because he’s a senior, he’s stepped up and has taken that responsibility on.”

After entering the second half up 45-17, Pitt’s lead hit 40 when Gibbs stole the ball and took it the length of the court for a fast break lay-up with 16:12 to go. His basket gave the Panthers a 59-19 advantage.

“I’ve never seen quite the transition offense they displayed this evening. They were knocking threes down in transition. They were getting their big people down the floor,” Jenkins said. “Today they showed that maybe they have another level to their game this year.”

Pitt kept its foot on the pedal and hit the century mark with 53.9 seconds to play when Birch converted a feed from John Johnson.

“Given the score and where it was at, we continued to hit the big guys inside or guys spotting up on threes, and that’s how we want to play,” Jamie Dixon said.

Woodall went 3-4 from deep to finish with 11 points, seven assists and no turnovers Saturday. Dixon said Woodall and Gibbs, who had 15 points, provide basically a dual point guard system.

“We got two point guards out there with Travon and Ashton,” he said. “It’s a nice thing to have. We’re really going to have almost two point guards on the floor the entire game, and that’s going to be how we’re going to play.”