RALEIGH, N.C. — It may be a new basketball conference for Pitt, and yes, maybe the teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference want to play a little differently than teams in the Big East, but if the opener is any indicator, the Panthers are still going to be the Panthers.
And that means their success is going to be tied directly to rebounding, defense and pace of the game. When the Panthers control those three things, as they usually do, they will win an overwhelming majority of the time.
That’s what North Carolina State discovered Saturday as the Panthers turned what started out as a track meet quickly into a battle of will and patience, and in that kind of game, the Wolfpack had no chance.
“My first thought, they out-toughed us,” said North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried after the Panthers handed the Wolfpack a 74-62 loss before a crowd of 14,049 at PNC Arena.
“They were tougher than our team was. They defended us tougher than we defended them, they got after loose balls — our young guys better learn at this level, if we’re going to win, it is real simple, we have to be a lot tougher than we were [Saturday].
“We just did not respond to their aggressiveness in the second half, we turned it over and part of that is being tougher with the basketball. When the ball was loose, they [dived] on the floor and we didn’t.”
That about sums up the difference between the Panthers and Wolfpack in this game. But things started out about as poorly for Pitt as imaginable as North Carolina State jumped out to a 17-2 lead.
Part of that quick start was the Panthers’ inability to make shots — they began 1 of 10 from the field — but a bigger part was the speed of North Carolina State point guard Anthony Barber and the Wolfpack’s ability to transition and get easy baskets.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon then made a switch from a man-to-man to the 2-3 zone defense and the guard started to sag even more after shots to take away transition opportunities, and those moves helped to slow the pace of the game, which allowed the Panthers to catch their breath and regroup a bit.
It turned out to be the right move as the Panthers settled in and methodically grinded away at the Wolfpack and climbed back in the game.
Dixon, however, said the bigger concern than the defensive scheme was a lack of effort and the fact that they were playing “soft” on defense, so he continued to give players a seat on the bench until he found a combination of players willing to play the way they need to in order to win games.
“I have five assistants and they were all urging me to sit a different guy, but we ran out of players so I decided to go back to the starting lineup for the second half,” Dixon said. “But I didn’t think our zone was really that good, we were still getting beat on the boards but it is something that we have used to slow teams and to get teams out of rhythm and it did that.
“But there is no secret or science, the only way to get back in it was to go defend and rebound and get loose balls. That is who we are. And we did guard better as opposed to giving transition hoops over and over.”
Lamar Patterson woke up after his “rest” — Dixon took issue with the word “benched” being assigned to Patterson and Talib Zanna — and led the Panthers with 22 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. Zanna had 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
Pitt also got a big game from the power forward spot as Young (13) and Jamel Artis (6), both freshmen, combined to score 19 points.
Patterson said the switch to the zone early was important because it did slow down the Wolfpack — and it has been a bit of a bailout defense in some recent games — but the Panthers need to play better defense from the start and not rely so much on it.
“Yeah, I think the zone [helped slow the game down] but we can’t let these games get that bad in the beginning,” Patterson said. “It was a good test for us to see how we would respond to adversity and we did well as a team. We knew they were a transition team and that was the only way they could beat us and that is the way they were beating us.
“Once we got that adjusted and made them play half-court offense and defense, we were able to just grind them out.”
The switch in defenses seemed to again be the right move as the Wolfpack opened the second half in a bit of a funk and the Panthers seized control of the game with a 15-4 run and took their first lead, 41-38, on a three-point play by Cameron Wright with 15:31 to play.
The Panthers did not trail the rest of the way.
North Carolina State (10-4, 0-1) was led by T.J. Warren, who scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
Pitt won’t have much time to celebrate their first ACC win, however, as the Panthers (13-1) play their second ACC game Monday night against Maryland (10-5, 2-0) at Petersen Events Center.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 or Twitter: @paulzeise
First Published January 4, 2014 2:54 PM