Men’s basketball: Pitt’s offense finding success at the right time

By Adam Littman

With the Pitt men’s basketball team leading Seton Hall 41-37 about three minutes into… With the Pitt men’s basketball team leading Seton Hall 41-37 about three minutes into the second half, Brad Wanamaker was guarded by John Garcia beyond the 3-point line.

Right before the shot clock struck zero, Wanamaker shot a high-arching ball over a leaping Garcia who, at 6-foot-9, is five inches taller than the Pitt guard. While Wanamaker fell backward, and the shot went in to give the Panthers a 44-37 lead.

“That was a huge dagger, momentum play for Pitt,” Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez said. “We played defense for 35 seconds, guarded the heck out of them.”

It was that kind of day for the Panthers, who never let the Pirates within seven points en route to an 83-58 victory Saturday at the Petersen Events Center. The win ended a two-game losing streak for the Panthers (17-6, 7-4 Big East) whose 83 points were a season-best. They scored 82 points in wins at Syracuse and against Louisville earlier in the year.

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Not only had the Panthers suffered consecutive losses, but they also lost four of their last five, Pitt’s worst stretch since 2001. If the Panthers want to finish the year strong, they’re going to need the offense to continue to improve. In those five games, the Panthers’ point totals were 66, 61, 63, 61 and 51.

Pitt is also 14th out of the 16-team Big East in points, averaging 67 a game. The Panthers’ shooting percentage — 44 — is 12th in the conference and their 34-percent 3-point shooting is seventh.

Saturday’s game was a step in the right direction, as the Panthers shot 51.7 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point range.

A big reason for the improved offense against Seton Hall was ball movement.

“The last couple of games we haven’t had many baskets with assists on them, we’ve just had a lot of one-on-one plays,” Gilbert Brown said.

On Saturday the Panthers made 31 shots and had 20 assists. They also turned the ball over just nine times.

“We didn’t really emphasize shot selection,” Brown said. “It was just trying to create for other players. We’ve really struggled the last couple of games and that’s where you see our offense really being stagnant [with] just not enough movement.”

In the Panthers’ two-game losing streak they had five assists on 16 successful shots against West Virginia, and eight assists on 23 baskets against South Florida. The Panthers had 16 assists on 20 shots in a win against St. John’s, nine assists on 18 shots in a loss to Seton Hall and 14 assists on 26 buckets in a loss to Georgetown.

“We played unselfish,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “We made the simple play, the simple pass.”

The 20 assists, Pitt’s third-highest total this year, tie the win against Louisville. The Panthers dished out 26 assists against Ohio and 24 against Binghamton.

But it wasn’t just ball movement that led to scoring for the Panthers. It was also movement without the ball.

“The main focus was running our motion and setting screens, trying to create shots for other people,” Brown said. “If you have the defense moving around, they start to break down and lanes open up and you’re able to penetrate.”

Brown took advantage of the open lanes, scoring a game-high 23 points, his second highest as a Panther. He scored 25 in the loss to South Florida Jan. 31, which he followed with a no-point showing against West Virginia.

“Coming from last game, and not scoring or being productive in any part of the game, I just really want to come out and be aggressive and assert myself,” he said.

Another Panther who didn’t score against West Virginia was Wanamaker, but he contributed 13 points in Saturday’s win. After his rainbow 3-pointer, he assisted an Ashton Gibbs’ three. On Pitt’s ensuing possession, Jermaine Dixon hit a three to give Pitt a 13-point advantage.

“Everything was going right for them. They hit three huge three’s in the second half,” Gonzalez said. “They hit three three’s during a stretch where they separated [from us].”

Dixon finished second on the team with 15 points, Gibbs tossed in 11 and Gary McGhee scored 12 to go with his 11 rebounds. Wanamaker led the team with 7 assists, and five other Panthers had at least two.

But not everything on offense went smoothly for the Panthers. On a breakaway late with the game out of reach, Brown went for a highlight reel-worthy reverse jam. While in air, he turned his back to the hoop and tried to swing his arms down and around before slamming the ball over his shoulder, but instead clanked it off the rim.

“I thought I had it. It just felt good. It was a shocker,” Brown said. “I thought it was in until I saw everybody’s face on the sidelines.”