A decided underdog, Panthers go into Syracuse and hand the fifth-ranked Orange its first loss of the season -- and do so in convincing fashion
January 3, 2010 3:00 PM
Kevin Rivoli/Associated Press
Pitt's Nasir Robinson, left, goes down for a loose ball amid a tangle of arms and legs in the Carrier Dome yesterday in Syracuse, N.Y. The Panthers won their Big East road opener in stunning fashion against the No. 5 Orange.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Some things never change in Syracuse. Jim Boeheim is in his third decade pacing the sidelines. His team has earned its usual high ranking in the national polls. And the faithful fans continue to pack the Carrier Dome with capacity crowds.
And one more thing that is as likely as snow and frigid temperatures in a central New York winter: a loss to Pitt.
Unranked Pitt stunned No. 5 Syracuse, 82-72, yesterday afternoon before 24,969 fans, many of whom flooded the aisles with four minutes remaining when it became apparent that the home team would lose for the first time this season.
That Syracuse's first loss came against Pitt should not come as a surprise. It was the 12th victory in the past 15 games against Syracuse and the fourth in a row at the Carrier Dome.
This one was the most unlikely of the previous three. Pitt's only victory against a team from a major conference before yesterday came against Big East bottom feeder DePaul five days earlier at the Petersen Events Center. Syracuse, meanwhile, ripped off 13 consecutive victories to start the season, including three wins against other ranked teams.
"It definitely builds confidence with the way everyone was talking about how we weren't one of the top teams," said senior guard Jermaine Dixon, who scored a career-high 21 points. "With us beating a top five team it shows them we can play with anybody."
Pitt (12-3, 2-0) prevailed in a game of clashing styles. Syracuse (13-1, 1-1) entered the game as the top-scoring team in the Big East, averaging 88 points per game. Pitt entered as the top defensive team, allowing an average of 55.9 points per contest.
Syracuse, which came into the game shooting 55 percent on the season, shot 42 percent yesterday and made only 1 of 13 attempts from 3-point range. The Orange did not make a 3-pointer in the final 36 minutes of the game.
Pitt also won the rebounding battle and out-fought the Orange for seemingly every loose ball.
"The game was decided with physical play," Boeheim said. "We weren't as physical as we had to be. And Pitt is a tremendous defensive team."
Pitt won its fifth consecutive game. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that the winning streak has coincided with the return of two of the team's best players. Jermaine Dixon missed the first eight with a foot injury and has improved in each of the past six games he has played. Gilbert Brown returned three games ago after serving an academic suspension during the first semester.
"We've been improving," said coach Jamie Dixon, who improved to 8-2 against teams ranked in the top five of The Associated Press poll. "We're not the team we were early in the year. We're a different team. We've improved every game out. We had a lot of great performances, but I really loved how hard we played. I can't say enough about our effort. We have to continue to do that every single game."
The 82-point effort was Pitt's best offensive game of the season. Pitt came into the game 15th among 16 teams in scoring in the Big East and had broken the 70-point barrier only five times in the first 13 games.
Early on, it certainly didn't look as if it were going to be such a banner day for the offense. The Panthers made just 10 of their first 30 shots from the field and trailed, 30-27, at halftime.
The only reason the Panthers were in the game at the intermission was because of the play of Ashton Gibbs and Jermaine Dixon. They accounted for 23 of the team's 27 points and made five 3-pointers between them to keep it close. Gibbs made 4 of 6 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes.
In the second half, the Panthers shot a blistering 59 percent from the field and scored 55 points. Gibbs finished with a game-high 24 points and made 6 of his 9 3-point attempts for the game.
Pitt jumped on Syracuse early in the second half and took the lead for good with 17:23 remaining after two Brad Wanamaker free throws. That ignited a 9-0 run and gave Pitt a 43-34 lead.
Syracuse managed to cut the lead to three a few minutes later when Wesley Johnson scored six of his 19 points unanswered, but the Panthers responded with another big run, scoring 15 of the next 20 points to resume control.
Syracuse could never rally after that as Pitt made 20 free throws in the final 11 1/2 minutes to prevent a comeback.
"We're a team that has gotten much better as the year has gone on defensively," Jamie Dixon said. "You can't give them transition baskets. We didn't do that, especially in the second half. We guarded on the perimeter well. We didn't want to give them opens 3s. And maybe we just caught them on the right day. Maybe it was just our day."
Yesterday and a lot of other days when Syracuse is on the schedule.