Men’s basketball: Panthers beat familiar foe Robert Morris

By Lauren Kirschman

While many Pitt basketball fans are looking ahead to the Panthers’ matchup against city rival… While many Pitt basketball fans are looking ahead to the Panthers’ matchup against city rival Duquesne next week, there was another Pittsburgh foe that stood in their way Tuesday night.

But Pitt used an 11-2 run midway through the second half to pull away from Robert Morris, who hung around with the No. 5 Panthers despite missing star guard Karon Abraham.

With Abraham serving a one-game suspension for violation of team rules, the Colonials (2-2) still pulled within five points with 10:53 remaining in the game. But three-pointers on three consecutive possessions started the run that helped the Panthers finish with a 74-53 victory.

“We let teams hang around, we do it game after game,” head coach Jamie Dixon said after the game. “We execute down the stretch, our defense tightens up and we get to the free throw line. We seem to make shots down the stretch. I think we’ve seen this story before.”

The Panthers saw the story recently, when they let Maryland and Texas come back after gaining double digit leads in the second half. Yet Pitt came home from Madison Square Garden with two victories.

This time, Gilbert Brown, Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker each hit threes within two minutes of each other starting at the 10:39 mark of the second half. Then, Brown drove to the hoop for a highlight reel, one handed dunk and was fouled. After he missed the free throw, Gary McGhee collected the rebound and was fouled scoring on the put back. He made the free throw as the Panthers (6-0) scored five points on one possession.

“That whole possession was good for us,” McGhee said after the game. “It helped us come away with the win.”

The run gave the Panthers a 58-41 lead and the Colonials wouldn’t pull within single digits again. Gibbs said that allowing teams to remain close is a concern for the Panthers.

“It’s a mishap that we shouldn’t let happen, especially when we start playing Big East teams,” he said after the game. “It’s something we can’t do.”

It appeared as though the Panthers would pull away early in the second half, when Gibbs, who had difficulty finding his shooting stroke in the first half, hit a three-pointer on Pitt’s first possession then followed with an off-balance jumper in the lane. A Brown jump shot and two foul shots from Wanamaker put the Panthers ahead 42-28.

“I was just taking what the defense gave me,” Gibbs said of his second-half turnaround. “My teammates did a good job of creating open shots for me and I just took advantage.”

But Robert Morris fought back. Lijah Thompson scored the first Robert Morris basket of the second half with a drive to the hoop, and then Anthony Myers converted one-of-two shots from the line. A three-pointer by Elton Roy trimmed the Panthers advantage to 42-34, when Lamar Patterson answered for Pitt with a runner along the baseline.

But the Colonials weren’t going away quite yet. Russell Johnson and Anthony Jones converted two straight lay-ups, and then Jones hit two free throws on the next possession to close the deficit to 44-39. That was as close as the Colonials would come, as the Panthers went on to outscore Robert Morris 30-11 the rest of the half.

The Panthers started the game on a 6-0 run, but Robert Morris went into the break with all the momentum. After Pitt went up 10 points with two minutes remaining in the half, the Colonials went on a 7-2 run, and the Panthers entered halftime with a slim 33-28 advantage.

“Robert Morris is really scrappy and they really got into it in the first half and we let it get to us,” Gibbs said. “We can’t let that happen and just have to keep running our offense. We were forcing too many shots instead of passing the ball and moving without it.”

Robert Morris head coach Andrew Toole said that although the Colonials played well enough in stretches to remain competitive in the game, they weren’t as relentless as they needed to be.

“They [the Panthers] are the No. 5 team in the country and they make you do some things that you don’t count on,” he said after the game. “I was disappointed in our ability to fight. There were stretches tonight where I saw doubt in my guys’ eyes and that’s disappointing as a coach.”

 After struggling in the first half, Gibbs ended the game with a game-high 20 points, shooting 7-for-15 from the field and 4-for-8 from three. Wanamaker filled the box score, scoring 17 points, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out seven assists.

 Dixon said Gibbs and Wanamaker “are just good.”

“We anticipated that they would be good when we recruited them,” he said.

 McGhee finished with a double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds, including four offensive boards. Nasir Robinson added 11 rebounds. Toole said that with Pitt’s size inside, it’s impossible for one guy to guard on the interior.

 “You kind of have to pick your poison with a team like Pitt,” he said. “You have to get 50-50 balls, communicate and be in the right place on defense.”

Johnson led Robert Morris with a double-double of his own, finishing with 15 points and 12 rebounds.

Pitt held the Colonials to 24.7 percent shooting in the second half while shooting 43.8 percent for the half and 45.8 percent for the game. The Panthers also out rebounded Robert Morris 74-53.

 “It was a good win for us against a team I anticipate will be at the top of the Northeastern Conference and I hope they are an NCAA Tournament team,” Dixon said.