DePaul guard Charles McKinney battles Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs for a loose ball in January 2012 in Rosemont, Ill. DePaul upset the Panthers, 84-81, after Pitt blew a 10-point second-half lead.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pitt freshman point guard James Robinson spoke of "slacking off a bit" and "slight mental lapses" when attempting to explain the Panthers' penchant for blowing leads and creating tense late-game situations.
The Panthers have won three consecutive games, but they have given away leads in the final minutes of two of them and almost did the same Tuesday night against Providence before Robinson saved the day by hitting two clutch free throws with nine seconds remaining.
The topic of blown leads seemed pertinent because the opponent visiting the Petersen Events Center for a 4 p.m. tipoff today pulled off a comeback victory against Pitt last season when poor late-game execution was the sole reason for the loss.
DePaul had lost 53 of its previous 55 Big East games before upsetting Pitt, 84-81, last year at All-State Arena outside Chicago. The Panthers blew a 10-point second-half lead and a four-point lead with 17 seconds remaining.
The loss was shocking for the Panthers, who were the defending Big East regular-season champions. It was the first time in Jamie Dixon's tenure as head coach that he had lost four consecutive games, and the fact that it came against the Blue Demons was the first sign that last season was going to be a long one.
If not for that loss against the Blue Demons, the game today could have been a "trap game" for Pitt with two games against top five opponents coming up next week. The Panthers will travel Monday to No. 5 Louisville and play host to No. 3 Syracuse next Saturday. With the memory of the loss against DePaul last season lingering, though, it's unlikely the Panthers will underestimate the Blue Demons.
"We know Louisville is Monday, but we have to know DePaul is right here, and they're not going to give it to us," junior guard Trey Zeigler said. "We have to be ready to play."
That shouldn't be a problem for the Panthers once they are reintroduced to Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young. They are DePaul's top two players, and they gave the Panthers fits last season.
Matchup: Pitt (16-4, 4-3 Big East) vs. DePaul (10-8, 1-4), 4 p.m. today, Petersen Events Center.
Pitt: Extended winning streak to three games with a 68-64 victory Tuesday at Providence. ... Had won seven consecutive games against DePaul before losing to the Blue Demons, 84-81, last January at All-State Arena. ... Junior F Lamar Patterson (10.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg) has scored 58 points in the past four games. ... Senior G Tray Woodall (10.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg) has had at least one assist in 40 consecutive games.
DePaul: Coming off 72-61 home loss against St. John's. ... Only Big East victory came at Providence. ... Led by Cleveland Melvin (17.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and Brandon Young (16.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg). ... Averaging a Big-East best 73 points per game in conference play. ... Coach Oliver Purnell is in his third season and has 29-51 record with the Blue Demons.
Hidden stat: DePaul is 6-71 in Big East games since 2008-09.
Melvin scored 20 points and Young scored 26, including seven in the final eight seconds when the Panthers fell apart with an assortment of mistakes that included two missed free throws by Isaiah Epps, poor perimeter defense and a costly foul by Ashton Gibbs on Young as he scored the winning points with 1.2 seconds left.
The Panthers don't want this game to come down to the final minute, but they know they have come through with clutch plays in recent games. Of course such plays wouldn't be necessary if they avoided some of the mental lapses Robinson mentioned.
"We might be on a run and give up an easy basket that will swing the momentum the other way," Robinson said. "If we stay away from that, we can become an even better team."
Melvin (18.4 ppg) is fifth in the Big East in scoring this season and Young (16.7) is seventh. Melvin is a strong rebounder, too. He has 48 offensive rebounds and is the sixth-leading rebounder in the conference with 7.6 rebounds per game.
Young and Melvin thrive in third-year coach Oliver Purnell's go-for-broke style. DePaul gave Pitt problems last season with its pressing and uptempo play that forced the Panthers into an uncharacteristic 15 turnovers.
The Blue Demons are playing the same wide-open style this season. They lead the Big East in scoring, but they also allow the most points.
Dixon said it will be important for the Panthers to dictate the tempo, something they did not do last season.
"We know about their pressing and tempo and what they're trying to do," Dixon said. "It's similar to Providence in some ways. We have to handle the press. They're a team of streaks, a team of runs. They want to get up and down and shoot quickly and make you shoot quickly. We don't want to settle for contested jump shots, which they want you to do."
Pitt should be well-schooled in playing against pressing teams. Providence pressured the Panthers and attempted to force turnovers. After committing eight in the first half, the Panthers settled down and finished with 14.
The Panthers have done a good job of keeping turnovers to a minimum. Robinson is among the top guards in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, and he will be looking to hurt the Blue Demons in transition if their press is not effective.
"We have to take care of the ball and make sure we capitalize on easy plays," Zeigler said.