Panthers open season — again — with 84-43 win over St. Joseph’s (Indiana)


Michael Young drives for a layup in Tuesday night’s game against St. Joseph’s (Indiana). Meghan Sunners | Senior Staff Photographer

By Dan Sostek / Sports Editor

With a pristine, safe hardwood court under its feet, the Pitt men’s basketball team officially opened its season, avoiding a slipup Tuesday evening.

After officials cancelled Pitt’s original season opener — a matchup in Okinawa, Japan, against No. 9 Gonzaga —  at halftime last Friday due to slippery and unsafe floor conditions, the Panthers defeated the Division II St. Joseph’s Pumas by a final score of 84-43.

According to junior forward Sheldon Jeter, Pitt was thrilled to get to play against a new team, no matter its level of play.

“At this point of the year, we’re tired of practicing against each other,” Jeter said. “I mean, we like the competition we bring out in each other, but we’re ready to get out there and play other people.”

The Panthers trotted out a starting lineup of familiar faces and newcomers alike, as returning starters James Robinson, Michael Young and Jamel Artis joined graduate transfers Alonzo Nelson-Ododa and Sterling Smith to start the game.

After scoring the first points of the season against Gonzaga in the now-nullified game, Young opened up scoring again for the Panthers, cleaning up his own miss with a layup.

“For this year I tried to tell myself when I prepare for a game, one of my first shots, try to get fouled, try to get a layup, try to get as many rebounds as I can to get me going,” Young said. “[I don’t want to] just use shots or offense to get me going, but use defensive rebounding to get me going. I think it’s really helping me.”

After St. Joseph’s converted on three of four free throws to give the Pumas a 3-2 advantage, the Panthers utilized the long ball to create some separation. Artis and Smith hit two consecutive jumpers — a three and a two— to give Pitt an 8-3 advantage.

St. Joseph’s clawed back, diminishing the Panther lead to 10-8 with 12 minutes left in the half. But Pitt responded with a 13-2 run, highlighted by back-to-back 15-foot jump shots by Robinson and a three-pointer by junior college transfer Jonathan Milligan.

“I thought our effort, execution and unselfishness was good early,” head coach Jamie Dixon said after the game. “I think it started carrying over, and then we started making some shots.”

Heralded freshman guard Damon Wilson made his Pitt debut with 5:58 left in the first half, checking in at point guard. He snagged a rebound on his first play.

The half ended with a spark for Pitt, as Young followed up when Robinson missed 3-pointer and laid it in just before time expired, giving Pitt a 37-23 lead heading into the intermission.

Young had a well-rounded first half, tallying nine points, six rebounds and five assists. Robinson added seven points of his own.

“I thought Mike really set the tone with some passing early,” Dixon said. “We didn’t knock them down, but he could have had a triple-double with some of the passes he made early in the game.”

Nelson-Ododa got Pitt on the board in the second half, following up an Artis’ miss to give Pitt a 39-23 lead and give Nelson-Ododa, a Richmond transfer, his first points as a Panther.

Once again, St. Joseph’s fired back, as it narrowed the gap to 49-34. But a 3-pointer by redshirt freshman Cameron Johnson and an and-one score by Chris Jones put the Panthers up 55-34 with 12:04 remaining in the game.

The teams traded baskets throughout the remainder of the contest, with a breakaway layup by Nelson-Ododa, Wilson’s first career points, a wide-open 3-pointer with 6:34 remaining, and a three-point play by Ryan Luther with 5:35 left highlighting the way.

Then with 4:24 left, Wilson dished the ball to a sprinting Jeter, who hammered in an electrifying slam dunk to put Pitt up 73-43. The dunk impressed the crowd more than Jeter, though.

“When I took off, I was like ‘I’m gonna go up and slam it,’” Jeter said. “But as I took off, I thought,

‘I should definitely be higher than this.’ If you go back and watch the tape, I thought I missed it at first. But then I saw everyone else’s reaction, and I was like, ‘All right, I made it.’”

Young notched his sixth career double-double, finishing with 16 points and 12 rebounds to go along with six assists and a block.

Jeter finished with his first career double-double, notching 10 points and 10 rebounds.

“I was really disappointed with the way I played over in Japan,” Jeter said. “This helped me get my confidence back up and get me going again.”

Wilson tallied seven points and five rebounds in his first appearance.

“Damon’s only practiced one day, yesterday,” Dixon said. “He obviously played today and played well. So that was a positive.”

Pitt held a stark advantage in size, as the Panthers played five players 6-foot-8-inches or taller, compared to the Puma’s one player of that height.

Pitt utilized its height to its advantage, outrebounding St. Joseph’s 56-35.

“Coach [Dixon] wanted us to outrebound [St. Joseph’s] by 10,” Young said. “I told my guys to outrebound them by 20. We got the job done, and I’m proud of them.”

Another one of Pitt’s strong suits Tuesday was depth. The Panthers used 14 players on the evening, while limiting each player’s minutes after the long 6,600 mile trip to and from Japan this past week.

“No one really had to play too many minutes tonight,” Jeter said. “No one had to put 30 minutes out there. It definitely helped.”

The win puts the Panthers’ record at 1-0 on the season. Their next game is Friday at 8 p.m., as they take on the Detroit Titans at the Petersen Events Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m.