PITTSBURGH — Jamie Dixon believes Pittsburgh (No. 14 ESPN/USA Today, No. 15 AP) can become a pretty good rebounding team.
VMI gave the Panthers plenty of practice.
Ashton Gibbs scored 20 points and Pitt set a school record with 60 rebounds in a 97-70 victory over the Keydets on Tuesday.
The Panthers (8-1) won their sixth straight with relative ease, burying VMI with a variety of layups and 3-pointers and handling the Keydets’ up-tempo style with ease.
Even better than the rebounding total to Dixon is where it came from. While Nasir Robinson led the way with 19 points and 14 rebounds, six Panthers had at least five boards, the kind of aggressiveness Dixon is looking for going forward.
“Our depth certainly helped with that and it’s pushing us in (a good) direction,” Dixon said, whose team outrebounded VMI by 29.
Robinson showed no ill effects from a lingering knee injury that forced him to miss a day of practice. He had little trouble using his wide 6-foot-5 frame to bull his way to loose balls and showed an ability to find open teammates, tying a career high with five assists.
“I thought he really played unselfish,” Dixon said. “He really kind of set the tone for the game. … He really can be a guy that does even more for us than he has in the past. We need to continue to work on that and develop that.”
Jordan Weethee led VMI (3-5) with 18 points but the Keydets simply lacked the firepower to keep up.
Three days after grinding out a 61-56 win at Tennessee, Pitt nearly matched that total by halftime, racing to a 57-33 lead at the break to set a Petersen Events Center record for points in a half.
VMI briefly pulled within 15 early in the second half before the Panthers were off to the races again to send the Keydets to their fourth straight loss, a run that includes a 107-74 rout at the hands of No. 2 Ohio State two weeks ago.
“Our guys get to watch Ohio State and Pitt on TV,” VMI coach Duggar Baucom said. “To come in here and play in this great arena is a good experience. I thought that if we can come out and execute like that against Pitt, then we think we can do that in our league and that gives us confidence.”
The game is a one-off of sorts for the Panthers, as it is for nearly all of VMI’s opponents.
The Keydets have only one player over 6-foot-7 and try to make up for it by turning things into a track meet. It’s worked well at times. VMI famously won at Kentucky in 2008, though there was no chance of repeating the feat against Pitt.
The Panthers are still in the midst of finding themselves, though they showed their typical grit while holding off the Volunteers on the road Saturday, a revenge game of sorts after Tennessee beat them down the road at the Consol Energy Center a year ago.
There would be no letdown against the Keydets, though the Panthers did their best early to slow things down. VMI actually held onto the ball for nearly the entire 35-second shotclock on its first possession — a rarity — and Pitt played with its usual defensive intensity for the game’s first 4 minutes, or long enough to force VMI to miss its first seven shots from the floor.
By then Pitt was already up 6-0 and just getting started.
Dixon substituted liberally — Pitt’s reserves actually outscored VMI 34-33 in the first half — and whoever he plugged into the lineup produced.
J.J. Moore hit four 3-pointers in the half on his way to 16 points while John Johnson showed flashes at both ends of the floor while competing with freshman Cameron Wright for the starting point guard spot in place of injured Travon Woodall, who will miss the next month with a groin strain.
Gibbs, the preseason Big East Player of the Year, will do the bulk of the ballhandling when things get tight until Woodall returns, and he found himself needing to get his teammates in order after VMI put together a 13-4 burst to start the second half and pulled to 61-46 with 15:58 to go.
The rally didn’t last — Gibbs made sure of it. The senior missed seven of his first eight 3-point attempts but hit five in the final 16 minutes as the Panthers cruised to roll into a showdown with Oklahoma State at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
“I was hoping he wasn’t going to catch fire like he did,” Baucom said of Gibbs. “It’s hard to remember that 1 for 8 because I remember the 5 for 6 after that. He picked his time and made some huge shots.”