The West Virginia Mountaineers will take bragging rights in the Backyard Brawl with them to the Big 12 Conference.
In the final scheduled game between these two longtime rivals, West Virginia beat Pitt, 66-48, at the Petersen Events Center Thursday night.
Pitt (15-12, 4-10) has lost three consecutive games and 11 of its past 15. The Panthers will not finish with a winning record in Big East play for the first time since the 2000-01 season. Pitt's hopes for making an 11th consecutive NCAA tournament now appear to rest with winning the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.
For West Virginia (17-10, 7-7), it was a much-needed victory. The Mountaineers had lost five of their previous six games and were in danger of falling out of tournament contention. They travel to Notre Dame for their next game next week with Marquette, DePaul and South Florida after that.
Pitt and West Virginia split the season series by winning on the other's home court for the first time since 1969-70. The game Thursday night was the 184th in the history of the series, and the Mountaineers will take a 96-88 lead with them as they head to the Big 12 Conference next season.
There is no scheduled game next season between the two universities, which have played every season since 1917.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins was not in a reflective mood when asked if the victory held any special significance because of the circumstances.
"We're trying to get into the NCAA tournament," Huggins said. "We know we have to win some games."
Senior forward Kevin Jones led the Mountaineers with 16 points. Senior guard Darryl Bryant added 15 and junior center Deniz Kilicli 14 for the Mountaineers, who shot 44 percent from the field.
A 20-5 run midway through the second half was the difference. The Mountaineers blew the game open with an assist from the Panthers, who kept turning the ball over at a high rate.
Pitt finished with 17 turnover, including several in West Virginia's game-turning run. What had been a 33-31 deficit quickly turned into an insurmountable mountain to climb.
West Virginia scored 23 points off those 17 turnovers.
"It started with the turnovers," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "It got us into a hole and got us down right away."
Freshman guard Jabarie Hinds sparked the run with a steal and layup and a 3-pointer. The run was finished off by a Bryant 3-point play that had many of the 12,508 in attendance heading for the exits.
"They were denying every pass," said Pitt point guard Tray Woodall, who committed four of the team's turnovers. "We weren't doing a good enough job of getting open. They had nine steals. They turned our turnovers into baskets. That was definitely the big key. Once again, I didn't control the ball."
Woodall led Pitt with 12 points, but he was 5 for 16 from the field as the Panthers shot 37 percent.
It was a big change from what happened in Morgantown a few weeks ago when the Panthers shot 46 percent and won, 72-66, at WVU Coliseum. Huggins played man-to-man defense in that game, but he played more matchup zone Thursday night.
"We changed defenses," Huggins said. "We haven't been very good in matchup. But I said, 'Everybody else can learn it. Why can't these guys?' We did a better job as the game went on."
Pitt didn't do much of anything well. In addition to the poor defense and turnovers, the Panthers didn't rebound, either. Pitt was the top rebounding team in the conference and West Virginia second entering the game, but the Mountaineers dominated the boards.
West Virginia had 33 rebounds to Pitt's 26. Jones had 13 of those rebounds, and the Mountaineers grabbed 12 offensive boards. They outscored the Panthers, 30-16, in the paint.
"They really hurt us on the glass," Dixon said. "They clearly beat us on the boards. We felt whoever won that battle would win the game. They won the battle and won the game."
Dixon lamented another slow start for his team. The Panthers fell behind early and trailed for all but a few minutes in the first half. Starting slow has developed into a troublesome trend, and the Panthers haven't led at halftime in the past three games.
"Getting off to a slow start hurt us," Dixon said. "We need to get off to good starts. We got down pretty quick."
NOTES -- Senior guard Ashton Gibbs was held to single digits for the fourth time this season and for the second time in the past three games. He was 2 for 11 from the field, 0 for 5 from 3-point range and finished with eight points. ... Junior center Dante Taylor had no points, three turnovers and three fouls in eight minutes off the bench. ... West Virginia was 18 for 19 at the free-throw line.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published February 17, 2012 5:30 AM