No one in the history of Pitt basketball has started more games than James Robinson. And, on Senior Day, his last contest at the Petersen Events Center, he was going to come out on top.
After the Panthers fell to the Louisville Cardinals Wednesday, redshirt junior Chris Jones, who was a member of the same recruiting class as Robinson, said the squad promised the point guard it would beat No. 15 Duke on Sunday.
Robinson’s teammates helped follow through on that vow, as Pitt(20-8, 9-7 ACC) dominated the Blue Devils (21-8, 10-6 ACC) 76-62 at the Petersen Events Center Sunday.
“They were terrific. All their kids were locked in,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The game seldom seemed in doubt, as Pitt led wire to wire, besting Duke in every facet of the game. Pitt shot 50 percent to Duke’s 38 percent, while also outrebounding them 39-20.
The performance came after two practices that both the players and Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon highlighted. After that disappointing loss to Louisville, Jones called the team’s practice on Saturday an “angry practice.” His backcourt mate, Robinson, also lauded the practices.
“[Saturday] was our best practice as a team,” Robinson said. “This late in the season, that says something.”
That quality practice appeared to pay immediate dividends. Pitt came out in rhythm, scoring 10 unanswered points to begin the game. Similarly, the Panthers started the second half on a 9-1 run. While Robinson called the beginning of half runs “big time,” Krzyzewski said the runs reflectedthe rest of the game, in that Pitt was frankly better.
“They just outplayed us for 40 minutes, so there were going to be streaks were they outplayed us even more and those were two of them,” Krzyzewski said.
The offense executed smoothly and efficiently to start the game, while Duke had little success finding quality shots early on. At the first media timeout, Pitt led 16-6 with 13:31 left in the first half.
The Panthers continued their hot shooting after the timeout, as Robinson and Cam Johnson both hit threes. Meanwhile, Duke’s only success offensively came from threes, as 15 of its first 17 points came from behind the arc.
“The ball moved really well today,” Robinson said. “They changed up defenses throughout the game, but we did a really good job of sharing the ball.”
Robinson finished with 14 points and 7 assists, masterfully operating Pitt’s offense in his final game in Oakland. He was one of five players who scored in double figures for Pitt, as Artis lead the team with 17.
Noise levels from the Oakland Zoo only rose as Pitt continued its hot shooting, reaching its zenith when Sheldon Jeter slammed in a two handed transition dunk with four minutes left in the half.
Eventually, Pitt’s offense cooled down for a stretch, while Duke started to find a rhythm, trimming Pitt’s lead to 39-32 at halftime.
But Pitt was the aggressor to start the second half again, as Michael Young slammed in two dunks — one an assist from Rafael Maia, the other in transition.
A layup from Jones off a back cut and a three from Jeter gave the Panthers a 48-33 lead with 15:59 remaining.
Pitt frustrated Duke defensively, as the Blue Devils rarely got in the lane, repeatedly struggling to find good shots, instead often settling for threes.
“We were in the gaps, we forced turnovers, made them take shots they didn’t want to take,” Artis said.
Krzyzewski also acknowledged Pitt’s active effort on that end after the game, noting that Pitt’s defense had a profound effect on the end result.
“Their defense was outstanding,” Krzyzewski said. “We just didn’t play well and they made us not play well.”
The Blue Devils would work themselves back into the game, eventually trimming the lead to 10 off a Luke Kennard three.
Oftentimes this year, Pitt has taken its foot off the gas late in games, letting teams inch closer to victory. Against Duke, though, the Panthers continued to accelerate.
They quickly quelled any chance of a Duke run when Jeter hit a midrange jumper and Ryan Luther knocked down a three.
“We wanted to keep pushing and keep pushing and be on the attack and I thought we did it defensively and offensively,” Dixon said.
With 5:53 left in the game, Pitt took its biggest lead of the game, 74-51, when Artis knocked down a three. The crowd erupted, as it did repeatedly all evening, celebrating the swishing of big shot after big shot.
Dixon will hope for more of the same, as Pitt takes the court again Wednesday when the Panthers travel to Virginia Tech to take on the Hokies at 7 p.m. With two games left in the regular season, Dixon said his team is playing its best basketball this season.
“I kept saying, ‘We’re going to get better, we’re going to get better.’ People were laughing at me, but we’re getting better,” Dixon said.