Men’s basketball: Panthers hand Syracuse first loss of season

By Alex Oltmanns

The Pitt men’s basketball team couldn’t have asked for a better start to its top-five… The Pitt men’s basketball team couldn’t have asked for a better start to its top-five matchup against Syracuse Monday night.

But it wasn’t the beginning of the game that sealed the win for the Panthers — it was their play in the end that allowed them to come away with a 74-66 win over No. 3 Syracuse at the Petersen Events Center.

Pitt started the game on a 19-0 run in the first eight minutes, but a 17-0 run by the Orange (18-1, 5-1 Big East) cut the lead to 19-17 to essentially negate the Panthers’ hot start.

But ahead by just four points with 7:39 left to play, the Panthers went on another run — this time it was a 10-2 stretch over the next two minutes to push the score to 65-53, all but putting the game out of Syracuse’s reach.

“It was probably the first time in my career we ever got out to a start like that,” Pitt senior guard Brad Wanamaker said in a post-game news conference. “That’s what basketball is, a game of runs. We made our first run. They made theirs.”

“We just did not do anything well in the beginning,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “We regrouped and I thought we played really well the rest of the first half once we got over that start and made as good a comeback as you’re going to make.”

Junior forward Nasir Robinson led No. 4 Pitt with 21 points, nine of which came in the first three minutes of the game.

“I was relaxed. My teammates found me, and I just finished the plays,” Robinson said. “Once I got a good rhythm, I just kept rolling.”

Syracuse played without its leading scorer, Kris Joseph, who missed the game with a head injury. C.J. Fair led the team with 16 points, and Scoop Jardine chipped in with 12.

“You just have to play with what you have. Injuries happen,” Boeheim said. “Obviously he’s a big part of our team, and we certainly missed him tonight.”

Center Rick Jackson led the Orange in rebounds with 11, also scoring 10 points.

The Orange got close several times but could never quite overcome its early deficit to take the lead and ended up with its first loss of the season.

Syracuse cut the lead to 28-27 before an Ashton Gibbs 3-pointer made it 31-27 right before the halftime buzzer. The Orange tied the game at 41 on a James Southerland three with just under 14 minutes left.

But Pitt guard Travon Woodall responded with a quick 3-pointer to take the lead back. For the Panthers, their resiliency allowed them to withstand the Orange’s comeback attempts.

“I think that’s just one of the most important things about this team, through adversity and hard times, we really just stick together and push through,” senior forward Gil Brown said.

The win marks the fifth-straight game that the Panthers have defeated Syracuse and their vaunted 2-3 zone. Wanamaker said that’s due in large part to the team’s ability to score against that kind of defense.

“It’s just us attacking their zone,” Wanamaker said. “We always have somebody down low that can make plays for other people. Nasir and Gary (McGhee) were the culprits of doing that today.”

Pitt set a new Petersen Events Center attendance record with 12,925 fans, and according to the Panthers, they’re a big part of the team’s success.

“It was crazy. When we made that first run, that’s probably the loudest the Pete has ever been since I’ve been here,” Brown said. “They were truly our sixth man. I think having a crowd like the Zoo really helps us out a lot and is the reason why we’re so tough to play at home.”

For Boeheim, who’s been coaching at Syracuse for 35 years, this Panthers team ranks up with the best in his tenure.

“This is as good of a Pitt team as I’ve seen,” he said.