The discussion about the Pitt men's basketball team this season has been mostly about its impressive shooting and quicker tempo offensively.
But the Panthers issued a reminder Friday to those who might have forgotten that the program under coach Jamie Dixon was built on great defense, and they put it on full display -- at least for 30 minutes -- against Loyola Marymount.
Pitt set out to contain Loyola standout guard Anthony Ireland, and did so for a long portion of the game, then cruised to an easy 85-68 victory against the Lions in front of a crowd of 8,049 at Petersen Events Center.
Ireland scored 20 points, one above his season average, but 14 of those came in the final 11 minutes when the Panthers (9-0) had built a 19-point lead and were mostly playing reserves.
Ireland also needed 17 shots to get to 20 points -- he was 7 of 17 -- and the Lions' other main scorer, Evan Payne, was 5 of 14.
Dixon said Thursday that stopping Ireland was going to be a point of emphasis after the Panthers had gotten torched by guard Tim Frazier in a victory against Penn State.
He was, however, a little less enthusiastic about some of his reserves in the second half, when Ireland scored most of his points.
"I thought we did a good job, I was really trying to emphasize to our guys to keep [Ireland] below his average," Dixon said. "I was trying to motivate guys and keep them focused on it, but it can be tough when you have such a big lead. For the most part, we did a pretty good job of keeping him out of the lane. Our defense was pretty good but we made some mental mistakes and we have to get better.
"But Ireland is a guy who can score, and we are trying to use that [when Pitt's in control] to get those young guys better," Dixon said. "We need Chris Jones and Josh Newkirk to become better defenders so we can become a better team. And that was their time, their opportunity to show us. I was trying to stress to them, 'Show us you can do it now against a really good player.'
"I wanted them to be as motivated as I was to keep him below his average, I wanted them to take pride in it but I don't think they were as concerned as I seemed to be about. I take things like that more personal."
Cameron Wright, who was one of five Panthers in double figures and led them with 14 points, said that the offense and shooting is nice for people to talk about, but defense is what really matters. And while he was happy with how they started the game, he didn't like how they finished it.
"When you are up big it can be hard to maintain the intensity level in these games, especially when it is still early in the season, and that is something we have to work on," Wright said. "[Ireland] was 7 of 17, so we did a good of making him work. He is a good player, but we did a pretty good job especially when you see their other guy [Payne] was 5 of 14.
"But defense is still what our coaches preach, it is defense first. You can't talk about the offense if you don't talk about our defense first, and going into every game we always talk first about our defensive principles."
Loyola (6-3) did outrebound the Panthers, 37-35, but Pitt held the Lions to their season-low in points (68). They also were only 26 of 67 from the field (38.8 percent) and 3 of 12 from the 3-point line (25 percent).
Ireland said he knew it would be a grind to get his points and acknowledged the Panthers had a good game plan, but said he didn't shoot as well as he needed to and wasn't as aggressive as he needed to be early in the game.
"Their defense didn't bother me throughout the first half and second half. I was trying to pick my spots and get my teammates involved more," Ireland said. "But they did a good defensive job on me, they played well, but I have to do a better job. Coach stressed to us they would be pretty physical."
Loyola coach Max Good said that Pitt was as good as advertised in terms of their strength and how physical they play. He was not happy that the Panthers shot so many free throws (15) in the first half.
He said the new rules interpretations have changed the game and made it much tougher to defend teams, especially when they are bigger and more athletic like the Panthers.
"I'd really like to apologize to Pitt's players for being so rough on them in the first half that they had to shoot so many free throws," Good said. "That's sarcasm."
Pitt again was balanced in scoring, with five players reaching double figures. Besides Wright, Durand Johnson and Talib Zanna each had 12, and Michael Young and Lamar Patterson added 10.
The Panthers are off for a week for finals and will not play again until next Saturday at home against Youngstown State.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.
First Published December 6, 2013 10:19 PM