Somewhere around 2 a.m. Saturday, seven hours after the news became official that starting center Khem Birch had left the team, Pitt senior Ashton Gibbs sent out a message via his Twitter account. It simply read: "Wit the Money Team tonight!"
The Money Team presumably is Pitt minus Birch, 19, a freshman who went back to Canada to contemplate his basketball future. In their first game without Birch, the No. 15 Panthers struggled a bit with South Carolina State before pulling away for a 69-55 victory at Petersen Events Center.
Whether Pitt (10-1) can be a money team without Birch for the long haul is a matter that will unfold over the next three months.
The Panthers received outstanding performances from a couple of sophomores to topple the Bulldogs of the Mideastern Athletic Conference. Lamar Patterson tied his career high with 16 points and Talib Zanna recorded his third career double-double with 12 points and 14 rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench.
Junior Dante Taylor, who lost his starting job to Birch, started at center but contributed only two points and four rebounds after picking up two early fouls. That led to Zanna playing a starring role.
Zanna, a 6-foot-9 forward/center, was 4 for 6 from the field and had a game-high five offensive rebounds for the Panthers, who outscored the Bulldogs, 36-18, in the paint.
"Talib played good," senior forward Nasir Robinson said. "He's been working hard all season. With Khem leaving, we need guys to step up. We need all 15 to step up."
Robinson made a mistake there because the Panthers have only 14 players on their roster with Birch gone.
Coach Jamie Dixon addressed Birch's departure for the first time after the game, and it does not appear that the door is open for Birch to return.
"I don't anticipate that happening," Dixon said when asked if there was any scenario where Birch could return to the team.
Dixon said he has not yet released Birch from his scholarship, and he said that subject has not been broached by Birch or his family. Dixon did not say why Birch left the team, but he said Birch had not voiced any concerns until Thursday.
"We had a lot of conversations throughout the year," Dixon said. "He's a quiet kid. I was trying to get a feel for what he was thinking. It was within the last two days, no question about it. That's when it first came about."
Dixon said he last spoke with Birch Friday night when Birch was en route to Canada. Robinson, speaking for the players, said no one on the team had reached out to Birch.
Patterson described the vibe around the team as "positive."
"We're just worried about our season," he said. "We've moved on. There's not much we can do about it. We just worry about us."
"I don't have too much to say," Robinson said. "I don't know what's going on. I wish the best for him wherever he goes."
As for the game, it was unexpectedly tight for a while. South Carolina State lost its previous game by 30 points to Gardner-Webb, but Pitt held only a five-point lead at halftime.
The Panthers began to pull away midway in the second half. After South Carolina State cut the lead to 35-34, the Panthers scored nine of the next 12 points. When John Johnson received a pass from Gibbs on a fastbreak and layed in a bucket with 12:32 remaining it gave Pitt a 44-37 lead, its biggest of the game to that point.
The Panthers started to pound the offensive boards after that and extended the lead to double figures for the first time. The next two buckets came on second shots. J.J. Moore got the first and Zanna the next one that yielded a 48-37 lead with 11:05 remaining.
South Carolina State could not get within striking distance after that.
The game was tight in the first half. Neither team led by more than three points until the final five minutes. The Panthers trailed, 20-18, but they finished the half on a 13-6 run that gave them the five-point bulge at halftime.
Gibbs, who missed his first four shots, scored all seven of his first-half points in the final 4:29 for the Panthers, who held South Carolina State to one basket in the final six minutes. The final two points of the half came from freshman center Malcolm Gilbert, who saw his first action of the season.
Gilbert entered the game with 4:46 remaining after Taylor picked up his second foul. Gilbert made two nice defensive plays upon entering the game that led to two baskets. The first two points of Gilbert's career came at the buzzer when he slammed home an offensive rebound.
Gilbert, who is 6 feet 11 and 235 pounds, had been headed for a redshirt season until Birch left the team. Now he is likely to have a role on the team for the remainder of the season.
NOTE -- Pitt plays Saint Francis, Pa., Tuesday night at Petersen Events Center.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published December 18, 2011 5:00 AM