For a while, it looked as if the first No. 1 ranking in school history would last one week. That's how badly Pitt played for stretches of the first half of its Big East Conference home opener yesterday against St. John's.
The Panthers were throwing the ball away, missing shots and allowing a young and unranked team from the conference to hang around.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, thanks to some ratcheted-up defense and another superhuman effort from DeJuan Blair, the Panthers avoided a one-and-done atop the nation's polls and finally looked like a team worthy of the No. 1 ranking.
Pitt defeated St. John's, 90-67, before a sellout crowd at the Petersen Events Center to remain one of three undefeated teams in NCAA, Division I.
The energized crowd gave the Panthers (15-0) a standing ovation as they came out for pregame warm-ups, but they watched an uneven effort in the first half in which St. John's had the lead for long stretches.
Senior point guard Levance Fields said the sloppy first half was because of the eight-day layoff instead of nerves stemming from defending the No. 1 ranking.
"We were anxious more than nervous," Fields said. "We had some unforced turnovers. In the second half we executed a little better and got some better shots."
Pitt shot 58 percent from the field in the second half and ran the Red Storm out of the building, capitalizing on 24 turnovers from the visitors. The Panthers had seven of their 13 steals in the second half as an aggressive defense turned the tide.
"Most of the time they just throw the ball before they look," said Pitt guard Jermaine Dixon, who had four of those steals. "Me and Brad talked about that. We felt like we could jump the lane and get it and run. That's what we did."
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said it was important for the Panthers to take advantage of St. John's' inexperienced backcourt.
"We were able to create a lot of turnovers and I thought that would be key for us," he said. "That was a matchup we had to exploit, and we were able to do that."
In addition to leading the team in scoring with 23 points and rebounding with 15 Blair also led the defensive effort with a team-high six steals. And on a day when leading scorer Sam Young was 5 for 15 from the field and contributed only 12 points, Jermaine Dixon scored a career-high 17.
It was another good sign for the Panthers, who continue to find ways to win games when their best-laid plans go awry.
"Jermaine did a good job this whole week getting extra shots up in practice," Fields said. "He was in a good rhythm today. Every time he was open he didn't hesitate. Obviously, we would have liked for Sam to shoot the ball a little better, but we know there won't be too many days when Sam shoots this way. And if he does, we have enough guys to pick up the slack for him."
While St. John's certainly did not expect Dixon to score as much as he did, Red Storm coach Norm Roberts said the difference in the game was the play of Blair, who had 10 offensive rebounds and continually out-fought opponents for loose balls that caromed off the backboard.
When asked how teams can stop Blair, Roberts quipped: "A Mack Truck."
"You have to pay attention to keeping him off the glass," he continued. "The thing is he is so physically strong. The great thing about him is his mind-set seems to be, 'I don't need you to run me any plays, I'm just going to get the ball.' And he goes and gets it. He did an outstanding job for them today."
D.J. Kennedy, Blair's best friend and former teammate at Schenley High School, tried to tell his teammates that Blair gets most of his points from offensive rebounds. But even an inside scouting report failed to make a difference.
"He's a beast," said Kennedy, who led St. John's with 18 points. "He turns rebounds into points. He can go through a game and not even touch the ball [in the set offense], and he'll get 20 points just from rebounding. We got killed by rebounds. Pitt got a lot of offensive rebounds in the second half and that hurt us."
Jermaine Dixon helped Pitt seize control of the contest early in the second half. Pitt led, 41-36, at halftime, and Dixon helped boost the lead to 50-40 a little more than four minutes into the second half, scoring seven of the first nine points for Pitt to open the second half.
After a timeout, the Panthers began to pull away. Fields and Young made 3-pointers on consecutive possessions for a 56-42 lead. The Panthers led by double digits the rest of the way.
"I think depth has been a strength of ours all season," Jamie Dixon said. "But it's especially a strength in a game like this. St. John's has had some injuries, so if you're able to get contributions from everyone you can really wear a team like that down. I thought that's really what happened in the second half."
NOTES -- Pitt received its first verbal commitment for the recruiting class of 2009-10. Isiah Epps, a point guard from New Jersey, is a four-star recruit and the No. 8 point guard in his class, according to Rivals.com. ? The Panthers had 24 assists, but had 15 turnovers. They had committed 16 in their first two Big East games. ? Pitt outscored St. John's, 19-2, in transition.
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published January 12, 2009 5:00 AM