Pitt has never been known as a good outside shooting team under Jamie Dixon. The fact that the Panthers were shooting 47 percent from 3-point range through six games seemed to say this team was different. And maybe it is.
But for the first time this season, the Panthers had to find a way to win when the outside shots weren't falling. It took them longer than expected, but they finally figured out a way to put away pesky Robert Morris.
The answer was feed senior center Aaron Gray the ball and let him take over. Gray scored 13 of his 21 points in the second half to lead the No. 2 Panthers to a come-from-behind 67-53 victory last night at the Petersen Events Center.
"They started getting the ball inside to Aaron and that was the game," Robert Morris coach Mark Schmidt said. "We had no answer for Gray. He was the X-factor."
Gray came through when he was needed most. After Robert Morris took a 42-41 lead with 13 minutes remaining, Gray scored seven points over the next three minutes, including a three-point play that swung the momentum back in Pitt's direction. Until that point, Gray had been almost an afterthought in the offense. He was being double-teamed in the post and spent the night passing to open players on the perimeter.
Those players were taking, and mostly missing, 3-pointers. The Panthers were 2 for 17 from behind the 3-point arc, the lowest 3-point output and percentage since they shot 2 for 20 at Connecticut last season.
The Panthers (7-0) were coming off one of their best outside shooting performances in recent memory Friday against Florida State. They made 10 of 18 shots from behind the arc, continuing an early season trend of superb shooting from 3-point range.
Dixon was thrilled with his team's offense. He said after the game that all 17 3-point attempts were good shots. That's why he kept telling his guards to shoot.
"We built this program on defense and rebounding," Dixon said. "Shooting isn't there every night. ... We took very good shots throughout the game. To win by 15 when you shoot the way we did, that says a lot about the other areas of our game."
Pitt was sharp in other areas. The Panthers played strong defensively and won the rebounding battle. Forwards Levon Kendall and Tyrell Biggs held A.J. Jackson, Robert Morris' leading scorer, to six points, 18 below his season average. Robert Morris was held to 22 points below its season average.
Robert Morris was able to stay close with superb guard play. Derek Coleman led the Colonials with 12 points and Jeremy Chappell and Tony Lee each had 10 points.
But in the end, Schmidt had no one to match up with Gray inside. Gray was 10 for 13 from the field and finished with 15 rebounds. He also had three blocks.
"I thought Aaron was great," Dixon said. "I'm not saying anything you don't already know, but he was really good tonight, offensively and defensively. A couple of those long rebounds late in the game ... there's a 7-foot, 270-pound center going after them and getting them."
Pitt had won the previous four games in the series by an average of 25 points, and it looked like this game would be another runaway early. The Panthers built a 12-point lead with less than five minutes remaining in the first half, but Robert Morris closed the half with a 9-2 run over the final 21/2 minutes to make it 35-30 at halftime.
Robert Morris used that momentum to draw even closer early in the second half. And when Coleman drove the length of the court for a layup with 13 minutes to play for Robert Morris' first and only lead of the game, there was hope for an upset.
To that point, Pitt had missed its first eight shots in the half from behind the 3-point line. From that point on, Pitt's centers and forwards accounted for 16 of the Panthers' final 26 points. Gray had nine, Kendall had five and Biggs two.
"We were getting a lot of good shots," Gray said. "They just weren't going down. Coach Dixon told us we were getting good shots, but he said we could get even better shots."
NOTES -- Sam Young's struggles at small forward continued. He did not score and played only six minutes, none in the second half. ... Mike Cook (11) and Kendall (10) were the other Pitt players to score in double figures. Cook has scored in double figures in five of the first seven games. ... Pitt improved to 26-0 against Robert Morris and 64-0 against Northeast Conference foes.Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Pitt's Aaron Gray and Robert Morris' A.J. Jackson battle for a rebound last night at the Petersen Events Center. Gray scored 21 points while grabbing 15 rebounds against the Colonials.
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Levon Kendall pulls in a rebound in front of Robert Morris' Ifeanyi Ehirim last night at the Petersen Events Center.
Click photo for larger image.Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Robert Morris' Ifeanyi Ehirim dunks against Pitt's Levon Kendall in the second half last night.
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Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1230.