Jamie Dixon's 200th victory was a lot like many others in his eight-year head coaching career. Stifling defense and a dominating performance on the backboards were the driving forces behind Pitt's 61-46 victory against American University at Petersen Events Center.
Dixon won No. 200 in his 255th career game. Only 12 other coaches in NCAA history have won 200 games in fewer opportunities. Pitt seniors Gary McGhee, Gilbert Brown and Brad Wanamaker presented Dixon with the game ball in the locker room after the game.
"That's the thing that means to the most to me," Dixon said. "They talked about the hard work and dedication. Of course, I corrected them and told them it was good players that is the most important thing. We're going to try to keep it going here. We're not going to change the philosophy. I want to rely on good players rather the coaching. We get the best players and win with the best players."
Pitt's rebounding has been present all season. The Panthers lead Division I in rebounding margin. The defense has not been a constant, but it took a step in the right direction Wednesday night. The 46 points were a season-low for a Pitt opponent.
"I think we really learned a lot in practice, learned from our mistakes and watching film, how to force defenders into our defensive help," Brown said. "I really see a lot of improvement in a lot of players. We can only continue to get better."
Wanamaker led the Panthers with 19 points and Brown added 15 for his third consecutive double-figure scoring game. Ashton Gibbs also scored in double figures with 10.
But the team that entered the game leading the Big East Conference in scoring had an off game on the offensive end. The Panthers shot 40 percent (22 for 55) from the field and struggled to make outside shots, going just 4 for 13 from 3-point range.
Pitt had to rely on its defense and rebounding to beat the Eagles, who are expected to contend for the NCAA tournament berth from the Patriot League. The Panthers won the rebounding battle, 41-24. They grabbed 18 offensive rebounds and turned those into 11 second-chance points.
American (7-5) held an early 12-10 lead, but the Panthers took command with an 11-0 run, holding the Eagles without a points for 7 1/2 minutes. In the final 10:29 of the first half, Pitt outscored American, 24-6. Brown scored all 10 of his first-half points in the final 10:45 of the half.
"I really liked the way we finished the first half," Dixon said. "We really stepped up defensively and took good shots and then we finished it off with our rebounding."
The Eagles, who were led by Vlad Molodveanu's 23 points, opened the second half on an 11-2 run and cut the lead to 36-29 with 16:16 remaining, but that was as close as they would come. The Panthers pulled away a few minutes later with a 9-0 run. Gibbs and Brown made back-to-back 3-pointers for a 56-39 lead with 5:46 remaining.
American coach Jeff Jones said the difference in the game was Pitt's ability to rebound and snuff out any second-chance opportunities for the Eagles, who managed only four offensive rebounds.
"Pitt came into the game as the best rebounding team in the country, and they didn't do anything to disappoint," Jones said. "We just couldn't hang with them on the boards."
The victory sets up a showdown of two top-10 teams Monday night at the Petersen Events Center when the Panthers (12-1) play host to No. 4 Connecticut (10-0) in the Big East opener.
"This game was almost reminiscent of how a Big East game is played," Brown said. "It was slow, grind-it-out offensive possessions, wind it down to the last second of the shot clock. I think this helped us, gives us experience for what we're about to face."
NOTES -- Pitt is calling for a gold-out for the Big East Conference opener Monday against Connecticut. All fans entering Petersen Events Center will receive a gold T-shirt. ... Dante Taylor had nine points and seven rebounds. ... The Panthers had 15 assists and only five turnovers. ... American was 3 of 4 from the free-throw line, Pitt 13 of 25.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com or 412-263-1230.