PHILADELPHIA -- There were plenty of reasons why Pitt lost for the second time this season last night, this time against Villanova. The Panthers turned the ball over 17 times, had one field goal in the final five minutes of the game and failed to make a 3-pointer after halftime.
But almost everything that happened to Pitt in its second-half meltdown was directly attributable to its most indispensable player being in foul trouble almost from the opening tip.
Sophomore center DeJuan Blair played only 23 minutes in a 67-57 loss at the Spectrum, and it seemed clear that Blair's inability to stay on the floor was at the heart of the loss.
"In our two losses, he's been in foul trouble," senior point guard Levance Fields said, also referring to the 69-63 setback Jan. 17 at Louisville . "Obviously, it's not good to play without him. When DeJuan isn't on the court, it hurts us a lot.
"It's good to have him out there. But we do have to do a better job of playing without him. I'm still out there, Sam [Young] is still out there. We have Gilbert [Brown], Brad [Wanamaker]. We have guys who have played. We have to find a way to play a little better."
Blair picked up two fouls in the first half and had to sit on the bench for 10 minutes. He quickly picked up a third foul less than two minutes into the second half. Making matters worse, senior forward Tyrell Biggs, who starts at power forward, had the same foul script, picking up two in the first half and another quick one in the second half. Biggs only played 15 minutes the entire game.
Despite the foul trouble, No. 3 Pitt (18-2, 6-2) led by 10 twice in the first half and by five at halftime, but the Panthers could not overcome the adversity that came along with playing with a makeshift lineup for long stretches in the second half. The mixing and matching that coach Jamie Dixon had to do made for a sporadic offensive effort that saw the Panthers play uncharacteristically sloppily in their half-court sets.
"If we had our guys in there, we can overcome most adversity," said senior forward Young, who led the Panthers with 14 points. "We didn't have our main guys in there. It was tough.
"If we're in foul trouble, we have to learn how to limit our mistakes. If we don't have our guns out there and are turning the ball over and not getting to the line, it's going to be rough."
Many of Blair's wounds were self-inflicted. He picked up his second foul when he blitzed a guard outside the 3-point line in an attempt to create a turnover and stop penetration. It's exactly the kind of careless foul that he has to learn how to avoid.
"The early ones are the ones that changed the game," Dixon said. "It's part of the game. We have to learn how to play through it. We have to figure it out."
Fields said Blair has a hard time recognizing when officials are calling the game tight.
"We usually blitz on ball screens," Fields said. "If it's on the wing, we trap. If it's out top, we hedge. If the game is being called ticky-tack ... that's something DeJuan has to do a better job of. He has to understand how the game is being [officiated]."
Despite the myriad of problems, Pitt had its chances late in the game. After a Young basket with 5:04 remaining, the deficit was only 5. But the Panthers missed 7 of their final 8 shots from the field, turned the ball over and made just 5 of 8 free throws in the final four minutes when Villanova (16-4, 4-3) opened the door for them with some undisciplined fouls.
"We just weren't executing," Fields said. "Guys weren't making plays."
"I don't think we shot the ball as well as we would have liked," Young added. "I'm not sure if it was their defense. We struggled all night. It was just an overall bad night, bad shooting, foul trouble, turnovers. It was too much."
After shooting 43 percent from the field in the first half, the Panthers were just 9 for 24 from the field in the second half and 0 for 10 from 3-point range.
Villanova, meanwhile, shot 52 percent (12 for 23) from the field after halftime and made 4 of its 7 shots from 3-point range.
"In the end, they made some 3-pointers in the second half and we didn't," Dixon said.
NOTES -- Reggie Redding led Villanova with 18 points. ... The Wildcats outscored Pitt, 19-10, at the free-throw line. ... Fields (11) and Wanamaker (13) were the other Panthers in double figures. ... Pitt was 3 for 16 from 3-point range.
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.