In the middle of January, Cameron Wright had fallen out of favor with Pitt's coaching staff. A big contributor off the bench in the first half of the season, Wright played one minute against Villanova, four minutes in the next game against Connecticut and then did not play at Providence.
Coach Jamie Dixon announced the next day that Wright was going to be back in the rotation and playing a regular role. Saturday at Petersen Events Center, Wright rewarded his coach by making the biggest shot of the game in Pitt's 65-55 Big East Conference victory against No. 6 Syracuse.
The victory was the fifth in the past six games for the Panthers, who had been 1-4 against ranked opponents this season. The fact that it came against Syracuse should not come as a surprise.
It was the ninth victory in the past 11 meetings against the Orange. This was the fifth consecutive game against Syracuse when the Orange were ranked in the Top 10 and the fourth victory for the Panthers, with the only loss coming a year ago at Syracuse when the Orange were No. 1 in the polls.
"This game, we felt like it was a must win," senior guard Tray Woodall said. "I feel like everyone left everything out there on the floor."
The fact that Wright made the biggest play of the game had to have Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim scratching his head. Wright is a defensive specialist and certainly is not known as a shooter.
But with the score tied, 35-35, midway through the second half, Wright was forced to take a 3-pointer with the shot clock about to expire. The shot hit nothing but nylon, giving the Panthers a much-needed boost of confidence at a crucial juncture of the contest.
"Cam is confident," Woodall said. "We see it every day in practice that he can hit shots. That was the turning point in the game. We didn't want to give the lead up there."
Pitt never trailed again.
J.J. Moore passed up the opportunity to shoot a 3-pointer to find Wright alone at the top of the key. Wright showed no hesitation before pulling the trigger. Even though he doesn't take a lot of 3-pointers, he is shooting 66 percent (4 for 6) for the season.
"I was screaming at J.J.," Wright said. "I definitely wanted the shot. J.J. gave me the opportunity. I knocked it down."
Pitt (18-5, 6-4) showed why it is the top defensive team in the conference. Syracuse entered the game as the top scoring team in the Big East, averaging 77 points per game. But the 55 points tied for a season low as the Panthers continually took Syracuse out of its offensive rhythm.
Syracuse shot 37 percent from the field and only made 3 of its 14 attempts from 3-point range. C.J. Fair scored 20 points to lead the Orange, but the Panthers did a stellar job defending the backcourt duo of Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams, who combined to go 7 for 26 from the field.
The Panthers also clobbered the Orange on the boards, winning the rebounding battle, 39-24. They had 15 offensive rebounds, which limited Syracuse's transition offense and kept the game at the tempo the Panthers wanted to play.
"Defensively, I thought we played as well as we've played all year," Boeheim said. "I thought the difference in the second half was Pitt getting on the boards. They're a tremendous defensive team. We knew we were going to have trouble scoring against them."
Boeheim had to play a fifth consecutive game without second-leading scorer James Southerland, who is academically ineligible. He also had to play without injured starter DaJuan Coleman, which forced him to play with a seven-man rotation. Grant and Fair played all 40 minutes. Triche and Carter-Williams played 33 and 30 minutes, respectively.
Dixon, meanwhile, rolled with his 10-man rotation, with Woodall and Lamar Patterson logging the most minutes with 30 apiece.
"It's tough because they keep rotating guys with energy and just don't let up," Triche said. "With them rotating and playing tough defense it kind of messed us up."
The victory was important for the Panthers because they needed a victory that would boost their NCAA tournament profile after losing games to No. 1 Michigan, No. 12 Louisville, No. 24 Cincinnati and No. 25 Marquette earlier in the season.
"I think they're a really good team," Boeheim said. "I thought all year long they were. I saw them earlier in the year and I thought they'd be leading the league right now. I think they've got a really good team. They're good defensively and they're good offensively. I think they'll be difficult to beat the rest of the way. I'd be surprised if they lose many games. They're the best team we've played, without any question. It's not even close."
Syracuse won at Louisville and beat Cincinnati at Carrier Dome.
The only thing separating Pitt from a six-game winning streak was that 64-61 loss Monday at Louisville. Whether the Panthers are as good as Boeheim believes is anyone's guess, but the Panthers have reason to be confident as they prepare for the second half of the conference schedule.
"We definitely took a step forward," Patterson said. "We beat a real good team."
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter: @rayfitt1. First Published February 3, 2013 5:00 AM