Panthers want to reverse trend of slow starts

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One of the most impressive statistics of the college basketball season was owned by Pitt in January. In the Panthers' first seven Big East Conference games they trailed for all of six minutes.

The Panthers jumped on opponents early, took a lead and closed games out in the second half. It was a successful formula as the Panthers won those seven games and built a big lead atop the Big East standings.

Lately, the tables have been turned on the Panthers, and they are finding that playing from behind can be troublesome. The Panthers have trailed at halftime in five of the past eight contests, and it finally cost them a game Sunday at Louisville.

Pitt did not have a lead for the final 37-plus minutes of an overtime loss to the Cardinals. Louisville surged to a nine-point halftime lead after holding the Panthers without a field goal for more than 11 minutes.

"We can't dig ourselves a hole that deep," senior center Gary McGhee said Monday after practice. "A nine-point deficit at halftime is really hard to come back from on the road. We fought back, but from now on we can't let that happen. We have to come more aggressive, move the ball around and get better shots. That should help us get a lead."

The Panthers also trailed at halftime of recent games against Rutgers, West Virginia (twice) and Villanova, but they were able to earn comeback victories in those games.

The Panthers led by one point at halftime at St. John's, but only because a 7-0 spurt in the final 1:25 of the half -- aided by four free throws after two technical fouls on the Red Storm -- yielded the 27-26 advantage. St. John's held a lead for 18 of the 20 minutes in the first half.

"Each game we lost this year -- Tennessee, Notre Dame and St. John's [and Louisville] -- they came out on top of us and beat us," McGhee said. "They executed from the beginning of the game. We had to fight our way back just to get the game close. We really need to start from the beginning."

Pitt trailed for 23 minutes against Rutgers and in the first game against West Virginia. They trailed for 16 minutes at Villanova and for 22 at St. John's. And after a solid first five minutes against Louisville, the Panthers trailed for all but a few minutes when they tied the score a few times near the end of regulation.

The team that made a habit of playing with the lead hasn't had that luxury for much of the past month.

Here are Pitt's point totals at halftime in the past six games -- 23, 23, 36, 27, 30 and 22. Those first-half totals have contributed to the Panthers failing to reach 60 points in three of the past five games. In that stretch they are averaging 62.6 points per game, almost 13 points below their season average.

"We just have to come out in the first half better," senior guard Brad Wanamaker said. "The last couple of games the thing that's hurt us is the first half, playing from behind. For us to win games, we have to be prepared from start to finish. We've been playing as a second half team the last few games, but that's something that's going to change."

"We know what we need to do, and that's handle business from the jump ball. And that's something we're going to do."

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon had almost the opposite outlook of his players. Dixon said the Panthers executed the offense well in the first half against Louisville, and believes if his team continues to execute that the shots will begin to fall.

"We didn't shoot it well last game early," Dixon said. "We'd like to shoot it well for 40 minutes. We shot 56 percent in the second half. You'd rather shoot it better in the second half if you had the choice. It'd be great to shoot great for 40 minutes, but there's a reason we're at the top of the Big East. We're doing it better than most.

"We're doing our best and playing the best we can for every minute we're out there. Sometimes, they make shots. They make plays. We have to come out and play well for 40 minutes, but that's hard to do. That's easy to say.

"I liked what we did [against Louisville]. Looking at the first half, I thought the execution was better. We had good looks. We just didn't knock them down."

Ray Fittipaldo: or 412-263-1230.


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