PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — After their trip to the Big Apple, zone defense should not be foreign to this Panther offense. However, it took some big minutes from their big men in the second half to win big Tuesday night.
Forwards Talib Zanna and J.J. Moore came to life, finishing with 12 and nine points, respectively, while sustained scoring and defense from the backcourt shored up a 70-46 victory by Pitt (6-1) over Howard (1-6), bringing its all-time non-conference record at the Petersen Center to 96-3.
“They really set the tempo of the game with their zone. It slowed us down. We gave up way too many layups in the first half, but in the second half we forced them to take jump-shots,” head coach Jamie Dixon said. “They were packing it in, and when teams pack it in, it’s going to be harder to get touches, and get scores for the big guys.”
Pitt managed a 36-28 lead at the intermission, but the Panthers were getting outworked and out-executed inside against the 2-3 formation used by Howard head coach Kevin Nickleberry. Ten of the game’s first 12 paint points were scored by the Bison, which held a 24-10 edge in that category after 20 minutes.
Furthermore, this marked the third game in a row in which Pitt was out-rebounded (37-36 for the night)–normally a strength of Dixon’s teams.
“We started the year with pretty high numbers, so it’s something that should be a strength of ours, and it isn’t right now,” he said. “We spent two days addressing it, but it’s just not getting done. That’s a thing that really stands out for us.”
While the interior struggled early against forwards Mike Phillips and Alphonse Leary, the Panthers kept the Bison at bay with superior perimeter play. The Panthers shot just over 44% to Howard’s 40.7%, but they were 8-of-19 behind the arc.
Five of those belonged to Lamar Patterson, who buried four in the first half and shot 5-of-9 from the field. He finished with five assists against only one turnover, along with two steals, and tied Tray Woodall’s game-high 15 points (6-of-13).
“We did a good job of shooting the right threes, but we’ve got to get some more putbacks, and some more offensive rebounds against the zone. We’re not getting enough of those,” Dixon added. “That’s something we’ve got to get better at. We’re just not active enough.”
“I’ve just been shooting it more, building some confidence, and it’s just dropping. I’ve been working hard in practice, and it’s translating into games,” said Patterson. “I didn’t really change anything. The 4-for-17 at the beginning [of the season] isn’t me.”
The points-in-the-paint advantage for Howard leveled off considerably in the second half, though it still ended 34-32 in their favor. Pitt slammed the door in the Bison’s collective face throughout the second half, allowing Phillips and Leary just one field goal apiece in that span, and their depth, along with their transition offense, proved to be too much for the visitors.
“In the first half, we gave up open drives, which led to weak-side boards. That put our big men at a disadvantage,” said freshman guard James Robinson, who registered nine of his 11 points at the time, and finished with eight assists. “In the second half, we just tried to play a little more solid on the defensive end, and close up the gaps.”
The Panthers, to their credit, did play a rather clean game on the back end. They entered the bonus with over seven minutes left in the first half, and overall they were awarded 18 free throws to Howard’s three.
“We wanted to control the paint, and we thought we could control it in the zone…make them make eight or nine passes, make them think a little bit, and create some mismatches with Phillips. Jamie did a great job going inside early against us, and getting us into foul trouble,” Nickleberry said. “We only had seven scholarship athletes dressing for us, so it was a tough situation.”
Zanna and Phillips each finished with a game-high eight rebounds, five apiece coming off the defensive glass.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)