Freshman point guard James Robinson was exactly who Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie wanted to take the shot late in a game Saturday when the Panthers and Huskies were fittingly deadlocked in the final scheduled game of one of the Big East Conference's best rivalries. Ollie watched the first five Big East games the Panthers played and knew Robinson was the worst 3-point shooter on the floor.
Robinson had made one 3-pointer in conference play before the game. But there he was with 3:42 remaining with the scored tied taking and making the biggest shot in Pitt's 69-61 victory at Petersen Events Center.
"That's what he does," senior captain Tray Woodall said. "He's a patient player. He's poised in clutch situations. This team has trust in him. A lot of people don't have trust in a freshman like we do with James, but he's instilled it in us. We'll definitely go to that guy, and we know he'll be ready when the time comes."
Robinson's 3-pointer came right after Connecticut rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to tie the score at 58-58. Ryan Boatright, who scored 16 of his game-high 20 points in the second half, made a 3-pointer to cap a 15-6 Huskies run just 27 seconds earlier.
Robinson had been struggling. He was shooting 29 percent in Big East games; 14 percent from 3-point range. Coach Jamie Dixon benched him for a game at Rutgers two weeks ago, and his production in other areas had slipped considerably in recent weeks, too. He was coming off a game at Villanova where he did not make a field goal.
Still, it was no surprise to his teammates when he confidently stroked the shot that stopped the bleeding and got the Panthers headed back in the right direction. After Robinson's clutch shot, Pitt finished on a 9-3 run over the final four minutes.
"He's always wanted to take the big shot," junior guard Trey Zeigler said. "Even in practice, at the end-of the-clock situations, he always wants to take the shot. It wasn't a surprise that he wanted to take the shot. And he knocked it down for us."
With the victory, Pitt (15-4, 3-3) won consecutive Big East games for the first time this season. Robinson finished with 12 points and was part of a balanced scoring effort. Lamar Patterson led the way with 14 points, 5 assists and 0 turnovers. Woodall added 13 points and six assists for the Panthers, who raced to a 35-22 halftime lead and hung on despite the Huskies' late push.
"Great win for us," Dixon said. "We knocked down free throws in the second half. We defended really well in the first half. That was as good as we have been defensively this season. And our bench was terrific."
Reserve center Dante Taylor was at the forefront of the strong bench play. He had two crucial plays that helped the Panthers put the game out of reach.
With Pitt up two, Taylor grabbed an offensive rebound and was fouled with 2:47 left. He made both free throws for a 63-59 lead. It was the 15th and final offensive rebound of the game for the Panthers.
On Pitt's next possession, Taylor received a pass at the foul line and nailed a jumper to give Pitt a 65-59 lead with 58 seconds left. It was Taylor who had passed up a similar shot and dished to Robinson in the corner for his 3-pointer a few minutes earlier.
"As a senior, I tried to step up," said Taylor, who was in the game because starting center Steven Adams had four fouls. "Tray trusted me with that shot. I trusted in James. I passed it to him to hit the 3. We all trust in each other. We know we can all make plays. We're all good players. We all work hard and know what we can do."
The Panthers dominated the first half by outmuscling the Huskies underneath. They shot 48 percent from the field and grabbed 10 offensive rebounds, which they converted into 14 second-chance points.
Connecticut shot 29 percent in the first half and compounded their problems with seven turnovers and poor transition defense.
It was a different story in the second half. Boatright attacked the basket for layups and created open shots for freshman guard Omar Calhoun, who drilled three 3-pointers and scored 14 points. The Huskies shot 58 percent from the field in the second half and had only four turnovers while limiting Pitt to 41 percent shooting after halftime.
But there was no panic from the Panthers after Boatright tied the score. They were in a similar situation Wednesday night at Villanova when they blew a five-point lead with five minutes remaining before scoring the final 15 points for the road victory.
"At Villanova, we made big strides," Patterson said. "That momentum definitely carried over. When it was crunch time, we knew what to do."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @rayfitt1. First Published January 20, 2013 5:00 AM