SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The hits keep on coming for the reeling Pitt Panthers. Even a trip to the Carrier Dome -- their home away from home in recent years -- couldn't provide a remedy for what is ailing them.
A season that once was filled with so much promise continued its downward spiral Monday night with a 71-63 loss against No. 1 Syracuse. For the first time since joining the Big East Conference in 1982, the Panthers have opened the conference schedule with six consecutive losses.
In addition to the 0-6 start in Big East play, it's the first time the Panthers lost seven consecutive games since 1995-96.
The Panthers played hard and well at times, but it wasn't enough to overcome a slow start. Syracuse scored the first 13 points and Pitt never recovered. The worst part about the start was that the Panthers had plenty of chances to score early, but continually missed easy baskets.
"We got to make layups and we gotta make free throws. It was the key to the game," senior guard Ashton Gibbs said. "If we made layups and we made free throws, we would have won the game."
Pitt was 12 for 23 from the free-throw line and the official count on missed layups by the Pitt coaching staff was 13.
"Missing 13 layups isn't acceptable at all," Gibbs said.
Those early misses were crucial, but coach Jamie Dixon said they did not demoralize his club. The Orange led, 35-26, at halftime and never trailed in the game, but the Panthers did make things interesting in the second half.
Pitt cut the lead to six on the first possession of the second half when Gibbs made a 3-pointer. After an 11-3 run boosted the Syracuse lead to 14, the Panthers stormed back again and cut the lead to four with 8:34 remaining after Talib Zanna made a jumper.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim called a timeout and designed a play for Kris Joseph, who made a 3-pointer from the wing. After a Pitt turnover, Dion Waiters made another 3-pointer, and just like that it was a double-digit lead again. The Panthers never threatened again.
"We battled back, but you can't miss layups and free throws," Dixon said. "We were far from demoralized. We got the ball inside and attacked the zone well in the second half. We didn't finish [around the basket] in the first half."
Joseph's 3-pointer was the game's turning point, and Syracuse exposed one of Pitt's ongoing weaknesses -- guarding the perimeter. Scoop Jardine easily penetrated Pitt's zone defense and created a wide-open look for Joseph.
"We let them get too much penetration," Gibbs said. "They took advantage of what we gave them. That was penetration and kicking. They made shots. That was the key to the game. ... We were right there."
Some porous defense didn't help matters early on, either. Pitt's transition defense was nonexistent in the early stages of the contest as Orange players went up and down the court unguarded. It looked as if Syracuse was going through pregame layup drills in the first few minutes as they dunked on odd-man fastbreaks for three of their first four baskets.
The Panthers eventually regained their composure and showed some fight. They won the rebounding battle, 40-28, but Syracuse center Fab Melo blocked five shots and altered other attempts close to the basket.
Pitt centers Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna missed most of the layups Dixon and Gibbs were talking about. They were a combined 1 for 7 from the field in the first half.
"There were a couple of times we didn't go as strong to the basket," Gibbs said. "There were a couple of times we should have dunked instead of going for layups. That's part of the learning process."
Syracuse set a school-record with 20 consecutive victories to start a season, and Boeheim won his 876th game, tying Adolph Rupp for fourth place on the all-time list for Division I coaches. Only Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith have won more games.
The victory had to be satisfying feeling for Boeheim and his players. Syracuse was undefeated the past two seasons before Pitt handed them their first loss.
Last season, Syracuse was 18-0 when the Panthers beat them at Petersen Events Center.
Pitt is now 2-14 against No. 1-ranked teams.
NOTES -- Gibbs, Cameron Wright and Lamar Patterson each had 10 points to lead the Panthers in scoring. ... The Panthers were 7 for 23 from 3-point range; Syracuse 5 for 18. ... Dion Waiters led the Orange with 16 points off the bench.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published January 17, 2012 5:00 AM