TAMPA, Fla. -- Pitt coach Jamie Dixon knew dealing with South Florida's size would be a challenge for his team. But Dixon could not have figured the Bulls would shut his team down Wednesday night in the manner they did.
Behind some stifling defense, South Florida hammered Pitt, 63-51, ending the Panthers' four-game winning streak and dealing a big blow to their NCAA tournament hopes.
There is little margin for error now.
The loss dropped the Panthers to 4-8 in the Big East Conference. They likely need to win five of their final six games to garner consideration from the NCAA selection committee. The next game is Sunday afternoon at Seton Hall, another team battling to stay in NCAA contention.
South Florida coach Stan Heath used his tall and lanky defenders to shut down Pitt's leading scorer Ashton Gibbs, who was 2 for 9 from the field, scored a season-low four points and had five turnovers. It was his lowest point total in nearly two years.
Hugh Robertson, a 6-foot-6 forward who was averaging 6.1 points per game, was 7 for 7 from the field and scored a game-high 18, but he said his main job was to take Gibbs out of a rhythm.
"I don't care about the 18 points, I was just trying to keep Gibbs out of the game," Robertson said. "He's a tough player, the Big East preseason player of the year. I think my length played a major part in stopping him. I'm quick enough to stay in front of him, but I think my length did the job."
Point guard Tray Woodall, who had been so good since returning from an abdominal injury, could not help the Panthers solve the Bulls. Woodall was 4 for 13 from the field and had four turnovers. The Panthers committed 17 turnovers overall.
Poor offensive execution was only part of the losing equation. The Panthers did not do much of anything well.
South Florida (15-10, 7-4) shot 60.5 percent from the field and had a field day inside against Pitt's post players. The Bulls outscored the Panthers, 36-26, in the paint. For good measure, the Bulls won the rebounding battle, 30-27.
"They did a good job on the rebounding," senior forward Nasir Robinson said.
"We wanted to get more offensive rebounds. They just wanted it more and played harder."
Pitt shot 34 percent for the game and 25 percent from 3-point range. Gibbs managed to get off one 3-point attempt, which he missed. He did not score until he made a jumper with 15:37 remaining in the game.
"They frustrated all of us," Woodall said. "It's a team game. He just didn't hit some shots. They did a good job crowding him, making him take tough shots. I've got to get our guys easier shots."
With 2:42 left and the Panthers trailing by eight, Dixon pulled Gibbs from the game immediately after Gibbs yelled a profanity at the Pitt bench. The profanity came just before Lamar Patterson made a 3-pointer to make it 53-45.
Dixon called a timeout and inserted freshman John Johnson into the game. The coach was asked after the game why he pulled his leading scorer at such a crucial stage. He did not mention Gibbs' mini-tirade as a reason.
"We were just rotating guys in and trying to get something going," Dixon said. "We were trying to find somebody to get somebody else shots. We weren't getting penetration and kicks and movement. We weren't getting the movement we normally have. It's not one guy. It's the entire team. We became stationary. I don't know why that was."
The Panthers had been able to overcome slow starts to beat West Virginia and Villanova during their four-game winning streak, but they could not do it again against South Florida. The Bulls jumped to an early lead and led for all but a few minutes.
"Give South Florida credit," Dixon said. "I think it was battle of patience, and they clearly won that. They seemed to be the ones that were patient. We just didn't perform offensively or defensively with the patience we needed.
"It's something we preached. We wanted to do it and we didn't get it done. We didn't play well from the start. We had our chances, but just didn't make shots and really turned the ball over. We didn't execute very well.
"We're disappointed. We're extremely disappointed because we hadn't been playing like this."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published February 9, 2012 5:00 AM