Panthers cruise in final tuneup

EXHIBITION


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Unlike Pitt's first exhibition, when the Panthers had just a two-point lead on Division II UC San Diego with four minutes to play, this one was never in doubt.

Pitt hosted Slippery Rock, another Division II opponent, Friday night at Petersen Events Center for the final tuneup before the regular season. The Panthers led start to finish, held a big halftime lead and came away with a 96-60 victory.

The onslaught started early with freshman forward Michael Young drilling a 3-pointer from the corner in the opening minute. Pitt opened a double-digit lead before six minutes ticked off the clock.

"The focus of the week since last Friday was improvement," coach Jamie Dixon said. "We obviously accomplished that."

Dixon was impressed in particular with the Panthers' "patience and understanding" on defense against The Rock, a program that was 23-9 last season.

Junior guard Cameron Wright bounced back from an underwhelming five-point effort last Friday to register 17 points and 10 rebounds against Slippery Rock.

"I give credit to my teammates and the coaching staff," Wright said. "They draw up plays that allow me to free up some time. When I'm open, I take the shots. And tonight I was knocking them down."

And the second half belonged to sophomore forward Durand Johnson, the likely sixth-man candidate this season, who torched The Rock for 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting (4 of 7 from 3-point range).

"I think I have a big opportunity to come off the bench to bring that energy, to bring that spark," Johnson said.

Joining Wright and Johnson in double-digit scoring were seniors Talib Zanna (14) and Lamar Patterson (11). The Panthers shot 50 percent from the field and collected 14 offensive rebounds, a number Dixon couldn't help but be pleased with.

The exhibition wasn't without flash and dazzle. Zanna and Johnson each had emphatic slam dunks in transition and Wright added a pretty breakaway finger-roll.

In the closing minute, long after the starters were lifted, Dixon brought in his 13th man. In trotted diminutive freshman walk-on guard Joshua Ko, and the crowd erupted.

Ko, a native of Kailua, Hawaii, and the state's Gatorade State Basketball Player of the Year this spring, enrolled at Pitt in late August and now found himself before a crowd of 8,530 that was bound and determined to cheer him to his first points in a Panthers uniform.

His first 3-point shot clanged off the iron.

But this was a day for second chances.

With 15 seconds remaining, Johnson dribbled up the court and, as the student section started to roar, Ko hesitated once, twice, then stepped out toward Johnson, who lobbed him the ball.

Three seconds left, then two. Ko couldn't pass up the moment.

He planted from well behind the 3-point line and rose up amid perhaps the loudest cheers of his young life.

But his Slippery Rock defender would have none of it. He jumped and swatted away Ko's shot and the feel-good story at the buzzer.

And thus ended the game, the exhibition season and the greatest moment that never was in Pitt preseason basketball history.

The Panthers open the regular season against Savannah State Friday night at Petersen Events Center.

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.


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