PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Jim Boeheim, otherwise eloquent in defeat, had no answer for why Jamie Dixon continues to have his team’s number, but Dixon was able to put a finger on it. Ten of them, actually.
“Our strength is in our ten,” Dixon affirmed after his Panthers (6-4, 18-5) stifled No. 6 Syracuse, 65-55, before 12,632 at the Petersen Events Center Saturday afternoon. “We had ten guys score, and nine got rebounds. It says a lot. Ten guys is the strength of this team, and all of them played well.”
Regardless of whatever disparity in talent might exist, those ten cohesive young men matched up with the Orange (6-2, 18-3) as well as any Pitt team has under Dixon’s watch. He has now won ten of the last 13 and six of the last seven from The ‘Cuse, having taken his fifth straight home-court meeting from the former Big East front-runners.
Depth was the death of the 13th top-ten squad all-time to bite the dust at The Pete. One coach emptied his bench because he wanted to, while the other did so because he had to. Injuries left Syracuse with seven scholarship players entering the weekend, and Pitt’s reserves outscored their counterparts 31-3, earning high praise from one of the most accomplished head coaches in NCAA history.
“I think they’re a really good team. I thought all year long they were. They’re the best team that we’ve played, without any question. It’s not even close,” Boeheim said.
Although the Panthers began the day by struggling, in characteristic fashion, against his 2-3 zone, their superior synergy between starters and non-starters eventually ruled the day, and the team said to have an embarrassment of riches in its backcourt didn’t allow itself to get embarrassed by an equally capable one.
Tray Woodall guided his team again with 13 points, five defensive boards, four assists, and three steals. Trey Zeigler continued his own solid play of late with six points, four rebounds, and four helpers in 19 minutes, and Cam Wright and Durand Johnson each hit clutch three-pointers down the stretch.
“I’m playing with a lot of confidence right now, and feeding off of it…and playing defense, because it all starts on the defensive end of the floor,” Zeigler said.
Michael Carter-Williams matched Woodall’s 13, and Brandon Triche one-upped them both with 14, but that tandem didn’t go nuts like others had in the past against Pitt’s perimeter defense, shooting just 27% collectively. Furthermore, Carter-Williams, the national assist leader, managed only a pair of those before fouling out in the game’s final moments, and Triche accounted for six of his team’s 14 turnovers.
“The guys really like each other. They like to see these other guys come in and make plays, and they have confidence in each other. Playing ten guys isn’t normal; we’ve been eight or nine in the past. But James Robinson and Tray Woodall sometimes are in foul trouble, and I like having that bigger guard in there with Trey Zeigler. They’ve improved,” Dixon said. “Cameron battled through a lot of things, and he’s a far better player right now.”
Pitt, particularly in the second half, also squeezed the Orange off the boards, ultimately out-rebounding them 39-24. Talib Zanna grabbed a game-high 12, and, before exiting with an eye injury, Steven Adams racked up eight points, seven rebounds, and two blocks. The first time he sat down, Dante Taylor stepped in and helped the offense find a pulse, not to mention guts, with an early and-one layup.
“We always talk about the strength of our team being in numbers. A lot of those guys…Cam, Trey, and Dante…they’re all ready when their number is called. Tonight those guys stepped up big, and we came away with a great one,” Woodall explained.
An interior that got its posterior kicked in Louisville seldom looked like the disheveled, disorganized unit we saw five days earlier, and it helped Pitt play Dixon’s way, shortening the game and out-executing Syracuse down low.
“We wanted to keep swinging the ball and make the zone move, and get an inside touch,” said Lamar Patterson, who finished with seven points, five assists, and four rebounds. “It’s hard to guard when the ball’s moving, so just keep moving with the ball, attack the gap, and just take what they were giving us.”
The ten proved they could do more than simply hang with a high-profile opponent, and the metaphorical sixth man let everyone know it when Carter-Williams was forced to sit after hacking a fast-breaking Woodall with a minute left.
“The Zoo has been unbelievable, and it just keeps getting bigger and better. The spirit of this school has been tremendous, and I think they’ve been a big part of it,” Dixon said. “We’re just thankful for the support they’ve been giving us all the way through. It was fun, and I think they had a fun time tonight.”
Whether or not they see their future ACC brethren again before next winter, the Panthers did what they had to do after letting another great opportunity slip away on the road. With a win that felt like the good old days of Big East dominance, they demanded the positive national attention they have sought.
It’s been a while since the keepers of the Zoo were regarded as the top dog, but if Pitt celebrates responsibly with another win over lowly Seton Hall late Monday night, potentially becoming the first to seven Big East wins, Boeheim hinted it could become the most fearsome underdog in March.
“They have good depth. I think seven or eight guys are enough. Over the course of a four-game tournament, or something like that, then that’s when depth is more of a factor,” Boeheim said. “When your games are spaced out, I don’t think it’s as big of a factor, but they have good depth.”
Eight may have been enough, but it’s much more appropriate to credit them with a perfect ten.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)
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