It has been a challenging senior season for Dante Taylor. The former McDonald's All-American gave way to freshman Steven Adams and has been relegated to a reserve role after starting 20 games last season.
In his next-to-last home game Wednesday night against South Florida, Taylor played one the finest games of his career in a 64-44 victory at the Petersen Events Center.
Taylor, a 6-foot-9 center, registered his first double-double this season with 12 points and 10 rebounds, helping the slow-starting Panthers (22-7, 10-6) move within a half game of Notre Dame in the Big East Conference standings.
"Dante was terrific," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "What I've been impressed with are his practices. He's been such a great player and teammate.
"His unselfishness is something that is recognized by his teammates. I'm so happy for him to be playing well down the stretch of his senior year. He's been a part of a lot of wins here."
Taylor reached double figures for the first time in the past 19 games. He hadn't done that since scoring a season-high 16 points in a December win against North Florida.
Listening to South Florida coach Stan Heath after the game, it was evident Taylor was not a focal point of the scouting report.
"I don't know what that is," Heath said of Taylor's big game. "I certainly hoped he would get his five or six points. He had a good game. He's a senior. I'm sure he wants to finish his career on a high note. That's encouraging for Pitt. That gives them a nice little plus."
Fellow senior Tray Woodall led the Panthers with 14 points, who fell behind, 30-28, with 16:06 remaining. The Panthers shot just 27 percent in the first half, and Dixon decided to change things on offense after the Bulls took their lead.
Dixon instructed his players to freelance instead of calling his set plays from the bench. The switch proved to be effective as the Panthers scored 38 points after halftime to pull away from the last-place Bulls.
"It was just, 'Play basketball,' " Dixon said of his message to his players. "It was more of a freelance-type thing. Just getting ball moved from one side to the other. I just wanted them to play basketball. I don't know if they felt confident in that initially.
"They saw the results and felt better about it. I thought we were too stationary and too easy to guard. It's something we have done and can use going forward."
Woodall said it was the first time Dixon gave his players freedom all season. Woodall said the previous time Dixon gave his players carte blanche was four years ago when he was a freshman.
Dixon disputed that, but it was clear the change helped the Panthers Wednesday night.
"Guys settled down and settled in," Woodall said. "Coach let us go play. We just went out and played how we do in practice.
"Maybe that's him adjusting and trying to get players into the game. Just go out there and play basketball. He gave his players freedom to play."
The Panthers shot 59 percent in the second half (13 for 22) and dominated the boards. They had 14 offensive rebounds and 13 second-chance points.
For the game, Pitt outrebounded South Florida, 42-25, and the Bulls did not record any second-chance points.
Pitt's defense again was stifling. It was the 12th time in 29 games that a Panthers opponent failed to reach 50 points.
South Florida shot just 32 percent in the game and 26 percent after halftime.
"We had a good start but we just couldn't sustain it," Heath said. "We had a hard time finishing plays. We couldn't get anything going offensively. We've been struggling all year long, but their defense was good, too.
"Their size and physicality creates some problems, too. They have a good team and a team that can do some damage going forward."
NOTES -- Pitt posted 10 conference wins for the 11th time in the past 12 seasons. ... Pitt's bench outscored South Florida's bench, 28-9. ... Reserve forward J.J. Moore had nine points and made two 3-pointers. ... The Panthers were 5 for 13 from 3-point range. ... Woodall also made two 3-pointers and is 6 for 9 from behind the arc in the past two games. ...Pitt was 19 for 27 from the free-throw line. ... Victor Rudd led South Florida with 16 points.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published February 28, 2013 5:00 AM