It was a festive atmosphere inside the Petersen Events Center Sunday night. Or about as festive one could expect for a non-descript, non-conference game against Rider.
The Panthers welcomed back their alumni for a halftime ceremony with some of the school's all-time greats such as DeJuan Blair, Don Hennon and Sam Clancy in attendance. They and the rest of the 8,712 fans inside the arena had to hold their breath as the Panthers staged a late rally to avoid the upset at the hands of a team from the Metro Athletic Conference that had lost to Robert Morris by 26 points Friday night.
No. 10 Pitt surged to an 86-78 victory with a blitz in the final five minutes. The Panthers trailed by a point but outscored the Broncs, 14-5, in the final 4:50 to ward off the upset bid.
"It wasn't our best performance," senior guard Ashton Gibbs said. "But we were able to get stops at the end."
That was about the only time the Panthers got defensive stops. Rider was 2 for 7 from the field and committed three of its five turnovers down the stretch. For the first 35 minutes, the Broncs had their way with Pitt's defense. They shot 53.6 percent from the field and made 10 of 23 attempts from 3-point range.
"We have a lot of work to do, especially on the defensive end," coach Jamie Dixon said.
That much was evident at halftime. The score was tied, 45-45.
The 45 points were the second-most points scored by an opponent in a half against Pitt at the Petersen Events Center. Only Notre Dame in a 2006 game has scored more.
The Broncs outscored the Panthers, 29-15, in the final 10:52 of the first half. They made 17 of their 29 field-goal attempts (58.6 percent) in the half. The surge came after the Panthers dominated play early as they jumped out to a 14-point lead nine minutes into the contest.
The quick start and the fact that Rider was humiliated by Robert Morris two nights earlier might have caused the Panthers to take their foot off the gas pedal.
"You hope that didn't happen," Dixon said. "They spread it and drove us. The focus was not to give up layups, but I think they had 13 layups. We pride ourselves in offensive efficiency. We've led the nation the last five years in offensive efficiency. But that was offensive efficiency. They shot 53 percent and only had five turnovers. You shouldn't win the game when the other team shoots 53 percent and only has five turnovers."
Rider coach Tommy Dempsey had his smallish forwards and centers drag Pitt's bigger post players out to the perimeter. Dempsey's slashing forwards were able to drive past Pitt's post defenders, which created open looks on the perimeter and under the basket.
"Our forwards are more driving, take-it-to-the-basket type players, and we tried to take advantage of them," Dempsey said. "That created a lot of help defense, and then our guys shared the ball really nice. They were really struggling with our action. We caused them a lot of problems with our motion. They were chasing more than they wanted to."
The Broncs seized control of the game early in the second half and held a six-point lead with 11:36 remaining. Visions of Chris McNaughton were dancing through the heads of Panthers fans. McNaughton is the player who led the charge for the only non-conference team to beat Pitt at the Petersen Events Center. McNaughton led Bucknell to a victory on Jan. 2, 2005.
The second huge upset did not happen, thanks in part to a bold move from Dixon. Desperate for a spark, he inserted freshman guard John Johnson into the game. Johnson had yet to play in the contest, but Dixon ran a set play for him, and he made a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 61-58.
They were the only points of the game for Johnson, but that was the start of the comeback.
The Panthers came back and took the lead after Lamar Patterson made a 3-pointer and Nasir Robinson made two free throws for a 70-68 advantage with 5:52 remaining. But Rider surged ahead again when Brandon Penn made a 3-pointer for a 73-72 lead with 5:02 left.
"To beat Pitt, you have to play 40 minutes," Rider senior Jeff Jones said. "They made big shots when they needed them."
The big shots came from a variety of players. Junior center Dante Taylor put the Panthers ahead for good with a basket underneath. Tray Woodall followed with a 3-pointer and Robinson added another bucket for a 79-73 lead.
Rider cut the lead to three after a 3-pointer by Anthony Myles with 1:22 remaining, but Gibbs made a 3-pointer with 58 seconds left to finally put the game out of reach. Gibbs led the Panthers with 24 points. Robinson added 22.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com or 412-263-1230.