Collier: Pitt remains schizophrenic

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Ten minutes after he and his Pitt teammates finally had dragged their Big East Conference record up to sea level, Tray Woodall sat on the edge of a media panel and explained that it was just a matter of the Panthers making up their minds to "keep playing Pitt basketball."

Really?

That was the solution?

Because just about everyone thought that was the problem.

At least everyone who had paid attention to the borderline psychotic swings of Jamie Dixon's team in this, its last go-around within a disintegrating conference.

By "Pitt basketball," did Woodall mean the kind where you allow 17 points in overtime against Marquette at home, as the Panthers had only a week ago? That's the exact kind of defense that gets you beat 136-to-something over the course of 40 minutes.

Or did he mean the kind of Pitt basketball that skunks top-20 Georgetown on its home floor by 28 points? Or the kind that wins going away at Villanova despite a quick perusal of the box score indicating that had the Panthers starting five been playing the Panthers bench, the starters would have lost by five.

Into Petersen Events Center and into this inexplicable context walked the Connecticut Huskies Saturday, and the Panthers greeted them with the kind of ferocious blitz of defense and rebounding -- offensive rebounding in particular -- that should have made a lasting impression.

"We knew we had to come out aggressive," said Dante Taylor, who raked seven rebounds that combined with Steven Adams' nine in a game when Pitt won just about precisely the way it wants to, on the backboards. "You have to be relentless about it, and that's what we've been talking about all the time, being relentless."

But that had amounted to little more than idle chatter until this week, when Pitt posted a fat rebounding advantage at Villanova and followed up with a 38-27 outmuscling of Connecticut near the windows. This game was barely minutes old when it became obvious the Panthers were a different kind of animal in the post.

Adams blocked Connecticut's first shot, then tipped in a rebound at the other end that set off a chain reaction of Panthers put-backs that jump-started the dominant first half in which Pitt erected a 13-point lead.

"They were aggressive getting to the backboard," first-year Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said. "They were keeping balls alive and, the worst part of that was, they were grabbing them and putting them in. Adams got nine rebounds in 20 minutes."

Ollie sounded as though that was hard to believe, but Adams had three blocks in the first half as well, and, even though he waded into foul trouble thereafter, this young New Zealander strung together the kind of intimidating minutes a mobile 7-footer ought to.

"I thought he was very aggressive," said Dixon, who kept pointing to those 16 rebounds by Adams and Taylor. "We got the ball to him better offensively, too. He's still coming along as far as finishing and being aggressive. He's unselfish and he's looking to pass first when he gets it, but, on the glass, he was very good.

"He did some very good things for us defensively despite playing in foul trouble pretty much the entire time."

Not surprisingly though, Pitt was not able to address all its issues satisfactorily in one 40-minute clinic. You might feel a lot better about the potential stabilization of this team had it not taken that 13-point halftime lead and given the entirety of it away by the time there were but five perilous minutes remaining.

A thunderous, no-style-points transition jam by 6-7 Niels Giffey (he fell flat on his back from the rim) pulled Connecticut into a 55-55 tie with 4:38 left, and, after a Woodall 3 re-established Pitt's lead, Ryan Boatright's layup and foul shot tied it again at 58-58.

"He's real quick, so we tried to just force him into tough shots," said Pitt guard Trey Zeigler of Boatright, who had a game-high 20. "Tray, myself, and [James] Robinson were the guys that guarded him the most."

They did manage to badger Boatright into a 7-for-19 shooting performance, but Pitt's second-half defense wasn't nearly aggressive enough. Connecticut shot 58 percent after intermission and threatened to make Pitt wait still another week before it owned a home victory in the Big East.

Had it not gotten clutch rebounds from Talib Zanna and Woodall down the stretch to go with a Taylor jumper in the lane and Robinson's long 3, we might still be pretty much confounded on this Pitt team's direction.

In longer stretches than not against a struggling Connecticut team, things seemed promising.

What that will mean Tuesday night at Providence remains pretty a full-blown mystery, aka Pitt basketball.

mobilehome - genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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