PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — We live in a world where Dante Taylor is met with thunderous applause for something he did on the offensive end. So is it finally safe to say this season will be different for the Panthers?
What hasn’t changed is the fact that Pitt (3-3, 15-4), at halftime, was in control against one of the more high-profile opponents on its schedule. A rebound and ensuing and-one layup by Taylor in the final six seconds of the period gave it a 35-22 cushion on UConn (2-3, 12-5) that preceded an increasingly and familiarly difficult 69-61 win over the Huskies before a packed house at The Pete.
“I didn’t want to lose another one here,” Taylor put it simply after finishing with six points and seven rebounds, his best output in over a month.
For the final 7:11 of the half, and the opening 9:57 of the second, Pitt maintained that eight-point margin.
It also held an eight-point lead, which stood at 55-47, after a pair of Lamar Patterson free throws.
Once upon a time, the Panthers, at various points, led Cincinnati by eight, and No. 5 Michigan by eight.
Not saying, just saying.
“In the games we lost, we let them go at the end,” said redshirt junior Patterson, who led his team with 14 points, five helpers, and three steals. “Today, it showed that, even with a momentum change, we could fight through for the victory.”
A sinking feeling permeated the building when this one headed down that path.
Connecticut came out ablaze, shooting over 57% for the second half. Pitt’s perimeter defense–which had made the erstwhile Division I juggernaut look like a WPIAL finalist–was suddenly ineffective, and naturally, a guy named Calhoun (starting guard Omar) was a driving force behind the drama.
Furthermore, no one seemed interested in stopping gutsy Ryan Boatright, who banged in 16 of his game-high 20 after the break.
“They were just hitting shots,” Patterson explained. “They were getting easy baskets, and we just had to make an adjustment. That’s what we did, and that’s definitely some growth for this team.”
“That’s the Big East. It’s a tough league, and we know UConn is a tough team…and there was a great atmosphere out there. We fed off [that], and we stuck with it. We wanted to get some stops, and they got some baskets, but we wanted to be patient, and we also wanted to be poised,” said senior guard Tray Woodall, who also finished strong with 13 points, and matched the six assists by Boatright. “We wanted to get good shots, because we know if we get good shots, we’ll get baskets.”
When the 13-point lead evaporated into a 55-55 tie with 4:38 left, Woodall got a pivotal one. Patterson took advantage of an overzealous Niels Giffey by dishing to Tray for an open tré that flabbergasted UConn head coach Kevin Ollie.
“We couldn’t get a stop in the end. In the second half, the guys came out and responded the right way, and got in the game,” Ollie said. “We have to play hard, we have to play for 40 minutes, and I thought we only played 20. You can’t do that in the Big East.”
Even after Boatright pulled his team even one more time, freshman James Robinson hit his own uncontested three, set up by Taylor. Meanwhile, Pitt out-rebounded UConn both ways, and 38-27 in total, with 16 coming from the center position.
Taylor grabbed defensive and offensive boards that led his game-winning foul shots, and the exuberant senior brought the Zoo to its zenith with a contested mid-range jumper inside the final minute that derailed the comeback train.
“I just tried to step up as a senior,” Taylor said. “Tray trusted me, and passed it to me for that shot. I had one earlier where Lamar passed it to me in the same kind of play, and I trusted in James and passed it to the corner for the three. That’s one thing about this team: we all trust each other, and work hard. We know what each guy can do. He trusted in me, and I trusted in him.”
The time-tested notion that these Panthers can go ten deep might have saved them today. The Pitt bench outscored that of the Huskies, 20-10. If so, they’ll need many more eye-openers and roof-raisers from Taylor and company.
“I thought Dante played really well, and I thought our bench was terrific, with Dante down the stretch,” head coach Jamie Dixon said. “I went with him given the free-throw shooting, and the foul situation, and he was big. Sixteen rebounds out of that spot is pretty productive.”
“Those guys work hard in practice, and it shows on the court. We didn’t get rattled. We just did our thing and kept playing,” Woodall said.
Potentially, this victory represents a crucial stop in their Big East farewell tour. Pitt had concocted ways to lose games of this nature, which really needed to change in the second half of Saturday’s contest.
“I thought we defended well, and hit free throws, obviously, and we got a couple big jump shots by a number of different guys. I think it’s not one guy and it never can be. I think it’s going to be a different guy, and that was key to see for us,” Dixon added. “I think the rebounding, if you continue to do that, that’s where good things are going to happen.”
Indeed, the seasoned Panthers put a foot down, and, being careful not to break precedent, used the other one to kick some glass.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)
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