PITTSBURGH—Pitt entered Sunday’s game against visiting Villanova (22-4, 11-3) with a perfect record (6-0) against top-five teams when playing at the Petersen Events Center. The nineteenth-ranked Panthers (21-6, 10-4) are now 7-0 after they upset the third-ranked Wildcats 70-65 in front 12, 930, which was the largest crowd to watch a Pitt game on campus.
“We don’t lose too many games period, so you can probably start with that,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said. “We expect to win at home whoever we play. After all, we’ve only lost about 10 games here ever.”
The raucous game was a match between the top scoring team (Villanova) and the toughest defense (Pitt) in the conference this year and it was the Panthers that tipped the scales in their favor by holding the Wildcats to 20 points below their average.
“It looked like we tried to slow down the game on offense but our defense was really a key today in controlling the tempo,” Dixon said. “We were able to slow down the game by holding them [Villanova] deep into their shot clock.”
Scottie Reynolds, the Villanova point guard known as the player that sent Pitt home from the NCAA tournament in the Elite Eight last year with a last-second shot, scored 20 points but was held to one field goal and one free throw in the first half which helped Pitt take a 29-23 lead at the break. It was the lowest-scoring first half for Villanova this year.
“They’re just physical and tough and they can do a lot of different things on defense,” Reynolds said. “They guarded well and their big guys did a great job on the boards.”
He was guarded most of the game by Pitt’s defensive stopper, Jermaine Dixon who is still bitter about being unable to make the stop on defense in the last five seconds of the heartbreaking loss last year that sent Villanova to the Final Four and Pitt home for the season.
Dixon scored ten points and pulled down six rebounds, and had three blocks, three assists, and three steals with only two turnovers.
“I wanted to win this game for the [Pitt] players that left last year because I felt bad for us losing that game. I felt responsible,” Dixon said. “I knew he [Reynolds] was going to try to attack and he can come at you hard and hit a pull-up jumper, so I think everybody did a good job on helping me guard him.”
Pitt was led by Ashton Gibbs, who started slow as well by scoring only six points in the first half, but he finished with 21 points including 9-12 from the free throw line and two for three from three-point range.
“I think it starts with our defense and our toughness,” Gibbs said. “We don’t back down from anyone.”
Pitt didn’t back down on the scoreboard the entire game. The Wildcats held a lead for only 44 seconds the entire game which was when Corey Fisher hit a three-pointer to give Villanova a 9-8 lead at the 13:53 mark of the first half. Fisher was the only other Wildcat to finish in double-figures by scoring 12 points.
Pitt tore off a 5-0 run on the next two possessions capped by a Gilbert Brown traditional three-point play with a layup and a made free throw that followed a Dante Taylor offensive putback.
It was Brown that came up big late in the game too when he drove the baseline and threw down a monster dunk with 1:26 left in the game that gave Pitt a 60-54 lead. He scored 16 points in the game.
“There comes a time in the game when a player can get hot and make a key shot but we have a different type of team this year,” Brown said. “We don’t have a main key player but a lot of good players who can step up and that’s what makes us strong.”
Besides the players, he also credited the home crowd for helping the Panthers win.
“It’s the Petersen Events Center. It’s one of the toughest places to play in the country,” Brown said. “This building brings a different type of atmosphere to the game. It’s one-of-a-kind that I enjoy every time we hear the crowd cheer for a made basket.”
Villanova head coach Jay Wright also credited the Pitt crowd for helping but he thought the way the Panthers controlled the boards played a big part in the Wildcats’ loss.
“That was a great Big East game and a typical Pitt-Villanova game that was fun to be a part of, but not fun to lose,” Wright said. “[Gary] McGhee was great on the offensive glass and [Jermaine] Dixon had some great offensive rebounds too.”
McGhee had ten rebounds including eight offensive rebounds. The Panthers out-rebounded the Wildcats 40-34 including a 21-12 edge on offensive rebounds.
Wright felt entering this season that Pitt would be better this year than the general public might have thought.
“Pitt’s success this year is not surprising to us at all,” Wright said. “Last year Jamie [Dixon] did a great job getting this group ready and now if they can control the tempo of a game and get to the foul line, you’re dead.”
After being picked to finish ninth in the pre-season Big East coaches poll, the Panthers now have an outside shot at winning the conference. They are the only conference team to have beaten Syracuse, Villanova, and West Virginia, the three teams they are either trailing or tied with, after the win over the Wildcats.
“We never really talk about winning the conference since there are so many factors that go into that,” Dixon said. “We just focus on improving each game.”
Pitt will look to continue to improve as they now travel to Notre Dame Wednesday and St. John’s Saturday afternoon before returning home to host Providence and Rutgers to finish the regular season.
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