After losing two consecutive games for the first time in almost two years, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon wanted his team to get back to its defensive roots Thursday night in a game against St. John's. The No. 17 Panthers responded with their best defensive effort in weeks.
The intensified defense coupled with some timely offense was enough to topple the Red Storm, 63-53, at Petersen Events Center.
Pitt's previous five opponents shot 44 percent or better from the field, but the Panthers held St. John's to 32.8 percent. It was the first time since the Big East Conference opener against DePaul that Pitt held an opponent to under 40 percent from the field.
"Our big emphasis the last couple of days was our defense," Dixon said. "We have to win with our defense, with our man-to-man [defense]. Today we did."
The victory might have come with a price. Senior guard Jermaine Dixon hobbled off the court early in the second half with what was being described as an ankle injury. The thing that had Jamie Dixon concerned afterward was that it was Jermaine Dixon's right ankle. The fifth metatarsel in his right foot was fractured twice in the past seven months and he missed the first eight games because of it.
Jamie Dixon said more about the injury would be known today.
The Panthers were able to overcome the loss of Dixon because of some timely offense in the final 10 minutes. The Panthers, who only scored 24 points in the first half, made 7 of their final 10 shots from the field.
Junior guard Brad Wanamaker scored 13 of his 16 points after halftime, and Gary McGhee had eight of his 10 points after the intermission.
Pitt trailed, 36-35, with 14:32 remaining, but Wanamaker and McGhee scored 12 of the next 19 points for Pitt to turn the game in its favor.
"They made shots they didn't make in the first half," St. John's coach Norm Roberts said. "Wanamaker made some great shots. Those were great shots that he made. On their last seven or eight possessions they scored in the final seconds [of the shot clock] on almost all of those possessions."
For McGhee, it was his first game in double figures since Dec. 2, when the Panthers beat Duquesne. He had gone 12 consecutive games without reaching double figures.
"It felt good to get involved on the offensive end," McGhee said. "When we get inside it helps us out a lot. We get guys open."
McGhee was 5 for 7 from the field and showed off a nice jump hook for two of those baskets. He had not had more than three baskets in any of the first seven Big East games.
"Gary got some isolations in there," Jamie Dixon said. "He got a nice post feed from Chase [Adams] on the one. He went up with it. That's what we're trying to get him to do. Just go up and finish strong and finish high. We want him to use his athletic ability and his size. Hopefully, that was a big confidence booster for him and for us."
It was a good thing McGhee and Wanamaker stepped up their offensive game because Ashton Gibbs had another off-shooting game. Gibbs had 14 points, but was only 5 for 13 from the field, including 0 for 4 from 3-point range. It was the first time since the season opener against Wofford that Gibbs, Pitt's leading scorer, failed to make a 3-pointer.
Gibbs did, however, deliver a big 2-point shot that helped propel the Panthers to victory.
St. John's cut the lead to two with 1:57 remaining after Schenley High School graduate D.J. Kennedy made two free throws. Pitt came down and ran Gibbs off a ball screen, and he converted a jumper from the wing. St. John's could not bounce back.
"It evolved just the way we wanted," Jamie Dixon said. "That was huge for us."
While Pitt's offense heated up in the second half, the Red Storm offense deteriorated after halftime. St. John's shot 27 percent in the second half and missed the final five shot it attempted from the field. The Red Storm did not make a field goal in the final 5:33.
"We were more intense, more on the same page," Wanamaker said of the defensive effort. "We were talking more. That's something we hadn't been doing the last couple of games."
NOTES -- St. John's became only the second team this season to outrebound Pitt. St. John's held the edge, 41-31. The only other team to outrebound Pitt was Wichita State. ... Kennedy, who was 3 for 11 from the field, finished with nine points and eight rebounds. ... Justin Burrell led St. John's with 14 points. ... Travon Woodall played 18 minutes with Jermaine Dixon out of the game and scored four points with no turnovers. ... Pitt was 21 for 24 from the free-throw line. ... Gilbert Brown finished with 9 points and set career highs with 8 rebounds and 5 assists.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230. First Published January 29, 2010 5:00 AM