Pitt’s zone defense suffocates Fresno State as Panthers notch 75-54 win


By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

Pitt men’s basketball found itself facing a deficit for the first time this season, as the Fresno State Bulldogs used a hot start to carry a lead into the game’s first timeout. From there, the Panthers’ defense shut the Bulldogs down en route to a 75-54 Pitt victory. 

Fresno State started 3-for-3 from the field and led the Panthers 8-2 early on. But Pitt (2-0) battled back to tie the game at 13-13 and used a 22-5 run to end the half and carry a 35-18 lead into halftime. 

After Fresno State’s early advantage, head coach Jamie Dixon and his staff switched from a man-to-man defense to a 2-3 zone. After the adjustment, Fresno State shot just 4-of-21 in the rest of the first half. 

“In the beginning of the game they came out very strong,” redshirt junior guard Cameron Wright said. “They were hitting a lot of shots, and we weren’t getting stops.”

As a result, Pitt scrapped the man-to-man look and went with the zone to combat the athleticism of Fresno State’s lineup that contained four guards because of injuries to interior players. 

“We have a great coaching staff, and they adjusted,” Dixon said. “The 2-3 zone I guess really worked for us in our favor, and we stuck with it.” 

Dixon’s move to the zone is one Pitt will use more frequently this season, not only because of the players at Dixon’s disposal but also because of the faster and more versatile ACC competition Pitt will face later this season. Tuesday, it worked. 

“Obviously our zone was good for us,” Dixon said. “I think we have the personnel for it, and we’ve got a lot of work to do with it as well.”

Redshirt senior forward Talib Zanna made his first start of the year for Pitt after he was suspended for the opener and took advantage of his status as the game’s most physically imposing player. Zanna made 8-of-10 shots to score 19 points and pulled in a game-high 10 rebounds. 

“He plays hard,” Dixon said. “The finishing around the rim: pivoting and powering up and gathering and going up strong … he didn’t rush out on the rolls or in the post-feeds. We did a good job getting the ball inside.”

Next to Zanna’s double-double, freshman forward Mike Young was a force on the glass with nine rebounds of his own. The two post players set the tone as Pitt out-rebounded Fresno State 48-25, which was the goal for Zanna and the rest of the Panthers. 

“Dixon always emphasizes rebounding, every day in practice,” Zanna said. “I think we were going to come out and out-rebound them.”

Pitt’s performance on the glass came much to the expectation of Fresno State head coach Rodney Terry. 

“[Pitt is] a program that has really hung their hat over the year on their defense, on rebounding,” Terry said. “We knew going in those were going to be two big keys to the ballgame.”

Fresno State shot just 37.3 percent Tuesday night, due in large part to Pitt’s zone defense, which Terry said came as a surprise to a team expecting to face man-to-man defense all night. The combination of Pitt’s execution, and the Bulldogs’ lack thereof, led to the Panthers pulling out early. 

“We didn’t do a great job of executing,” Terry said. “We settled for some shots as opposed to really working the ball, working the gaps.”

Fresno State executed better to start the second half by exploiting the open areas of Pitt’s zone. More than 10 minutes into the second half, the Bulldogs were winning the half by a point at 16-15. 

“The middle was wide open for us, as they were in their zone in the first half, and we just didn’t take advantage of that,” Terry said. “In the second half, we were really pass faking, getting the ball to the middle, we had shots in the middle on dump downs.”

But the Panthers continued to feed Zanna the ball and received a solid night of play from Wright to fend off any attempt at a comeback, leaving the Petersen Events Center with a 21-point victory. Wright finished with 13 points, six rebounds and a game-high four steals. 

Wright’s all-around performance was one he feels mirrors the capabilities of this year’s Panther team, at least on the defensive end as shown by the suffocating zone defense. 

“I just feel like myself and all my teammates are very versatile,” Wright said. “We can play one-on-one defense, we can also play zone and rebound out of the zone, which is really important.”