It wasn't all that long ago that Pitt's reserves were sticking out like sore thumbs. Unproductive and looking lost for most of the first few games, the bench hit a low point in a loss to Long Beach State 10 days ago when it contributed just two points.
Much has happened since that loss. One starter was suspended, another was injured, and the Panthers have won three consecutive games. The reserves have been a big part of the turnaround and starred in an 81-71 victory against Robert Morris Sunday night at Petersen Events Center.
Redshirt sophomore forward/center Talib Zanna had his first double-double in more than a year, scoring 10 points and grabbing a career-high 15 rebounds. Redshirt freshman guard Cameron Wright chipped in with 13 points and two steals.
And two former reserves who are now starting because of suspensions and injuries picked up where they left off after impressive performances Friday against Penn.
Khem Birch started again in place of Dante Taylor, who sat out a second consecutive game with migraine headaches. Birch had 8 points, 11 rebounds and 6 blocks, one shy of tying a school record for rejections.
J.J. Moore started at small forward in place of Lamar Patterson, who served the second game of a two-game suspension for a violation of team rules. Moore contributed eight points.
"We had some good performances by our bench," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "That was great to see."
Zanna's previous double-double was Nov. 18 of last season when he scored 14 points and had 12 rebounds in a victory against Maryland. Zanna has played more minutes the past two games because he is currently the backup center and power forward.
Zanna, who is 6 feet 9 and 230 pounds, was 5 for 8 from the field and had seven offensive rebounds.
"We all know they have some injuries and suspensions and it's giving some opportunities for other guys to get on the floor and carve out niches for themselves," Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said. "We knew they were going to be ultra-aggressive and try to show coach Dixon they should get more minutes when Dante Taylor and Lamar Patterson return. They had a huge impact on the game. Zanna was incredible on the offensive glass. He was playing volleyball by himself sometimes up there."
Zanna had struggled to get his confidence in the first four games, but he has been much better the past two. He had eight points in 13 minutes against Penn before exiting the game in the second half with a knee injury.
"[Sunday], I let the game come to me," Zanna said. "I'm going to try to keep this going. The first three games I didn't do a whole lot. I'm going to do my best to keep this going."
Wright stood out on offense and defense. He was 6 for 7 from the field and created two of those baskets through his defense. Twice he stepped in passing lanes to pick off passes and generate breakaway layups.
Wright had struggled in his role as the first guard off the bench, but he flourished in the role as backup Sunday night at small forward. He had as many points (5) as turnovers (5) entering the Robert Morris game.
"It was good to see Cameron come out and play with confidence," Dixon said.
While the bench supplied much of the offense, the defense held an opponent below 40 percent shooting for the first time this season. The Colonials shot 37 percent from the field, and leading scorer Velton Jones, who was averaging 20 points per game, was 1 for 14.
Jones had talked about coming into Petersen Events Center and winning after Robert Morris beat La Salle Friday at The Palestra, and his quotes were bulletin-board material for the Panthers. Zanna said the comments got the Panthers' attention.
"We knew they were going to come out hungry," he said. "We wanted to come out hungrier."
That was evident from the outset. After Robert Morris took an early 6-5 lead that lasted all of 26 seconds, Pitt seized control. The Panthers scored 17 of the next 20 points to take a 22-10 lead.
Robert Morris (4-2) went more than six minutes without making a field goal. Pitt stretched its lead to 43-25 by halftime.
The Panthers quickly built on their lead after halftime, going up by 19 after Ashton Gibbs, who scored a game-high 21 points, made a 3-pointer. Robert Morris did not cut the deficit to 10 until less than a minute remained.
NOTES -- Gibbs was the high scorer, but he was 6 for 17 from the field. He is 22 for 66 from the field in the past four games. ... Pitt improved to 30-0 all time against Robert Morris. ... Pitt's bench outscored Robert Morris' bench, 29-10. ... Coron Williams led the Colonials with 19 points.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230. First Published November 28, 2011 5:00 AM