Pitt followed a familiar script Saturday night in its victory against North Florida. The Panthers appeared disinterested for stretches in the first half and found themselves tied with a little more than five minutes remaining in the first half. Then, as they had in most of their other recent contests, they turned it on and pulled away for an 89-47 victory at Petersen Events Center.
One can only wonder what the Panthers might do in some of these non-conference games if they actually figured out a way to play a complete game.
"We can definitely start a little better," sophomore guard Cameron Wright said. "We played well in the first half, but we had some lapses. We can definitely pick it up."
North Florida had the Panthers on their heels in the early going. The score was tied at 27-27 with 5:42 remaining before halftime after the Ospreys made five of their six first-half 3-pointers in the first 15 minutes.
Over the final 35:21, the Panthers outscored the Ospreys, 62-20, and secured their largest margin of victory on the season.
Pitt's offense was almost flawless for the entire game. The Panthers shot 59 percent from the field and had 21 assists and only five turnovers. Five players scored in double figures with reserve center Dante Taylor leading the way with 16 points. Talib Zanna added 15, Tray Woodall 14, Lamar Patterson 13 and Cameron Wright 10 for the Panthers, who outscored the Ospreys, 42-18, in the lane.
"Any time you lead the country in assists, it tells you, you have a great group of guys," North Florida coach Matt Driscoll said. "They share the sugar so well. They probably could take a whole lot more shots, especially when they get in close, but they're always looking to pass the ball. And that was part of kind of what we game-planned a little bit and why it worked. We knew they weren't going to take shots unless it was under 15 seconds or 10 seconds. They were always trying to get the next guy a shot and sometimes that hurts them when they do that. Obviously they're a great turnover team that goes down and gets easy points and easy baskets. They get those big guys getting those types of shots. It's impressive they way they share the sugar."
Pitt (9-1) was the sixth team from a major conference that North Florida (3-6) played, and Driscoll said Pitt was the best team his team had faced. The Ospreys lost to Memphis when the Tigers were ranked and also to No. 14 Minnesota.
"I've played Kansas State, Memphis, Florida State, Minnesota this year," said Driscoll, a Northgate High School graduate and former head coach at La Roche College. "I thought Minnesota was the best team we've played this year until [Saturday night]. Now that we're done playing all these 'money' games, I would say that probably Pitt would be No. 1 and Minnesota would be two. I'm a voter in the [coaches' poll] and I voted [Pitt] the last two weeks. I did it not because of my heart but because of my head."
Pitt's lackluster defense was the reason North Florida was able to stay close in the first half. The Ospreys shot 48 percent in the first 20 minutes and also had a 14-12 edge in rebounding. This was after the Panthers set a season-high with 49 rebounds Wednesday night against Duquesne.
In the second half, the Panthers turned the tables and beat the Ospreys, 23-7, on the boards. They finished with a 35-21 advantage. Defense and rebounding were the focus of coach Jamie Dixon's halftime speech.
"We were a little disappointed in ourselves because we were down by two [rebounds] going into halftime," Taylor said. "We knew we wanted to outrebound them and carry it over from last game. Coach came in and told us it all started with defense, letting them get 3s, so we weren't able to get a lot of defensive rebounds. We knew we had to pick it up, and we came out and executed."
The defense was much improved in the second half, too. North Florida was 7 for 23 from the field in the second half and only made three 3-pointers after the six in the first half kept the score close.
"Our defense was good start to finish in the second half," Dixon said. "They shot 30 percent and that's a good offensive team. I thought we were much better in the second half."
NOTES -- Pitt set a school record by not allowing North Florida to shoot a free throw in the game. ... The previous record for an opponent was one free throw on three occasions, most recently in 2003 against Albany. ... Woodall had nine assists, 0 turnovers and 2 steals... Wright and Taylor each had three steals. ... The Panthers were 21 for 25 from the free-throw line.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @rayfitt1.