Motivated Panthers improve on defense


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Pitt played with a bit of an edge Tuesday night, and the results showed as the Panthers routed Clemson, 76-43, for the fourth-largest margin of victory for a conference game in their history.

What was bothering the Panthers?

According to coach Jamie Dixon and company, there were two things.

The first motivation was obvious -- the Panthers were reeling from their 59-54 loss Saturday at Syracuse and felt like that was a game they should have won.

Pitt missed 10 free throws in that game and also had a late, 3-point lead and several opportunities to add to it, but could not capitalize on its opportunities and eventually the Orange got a couple of drives from point guard Tyler Ennis and rallied for a win.

The second motivation was more personal and had a lot to do with the identity that Dixon has instilled in the program.

Clemson came into the game leading the ACC in field-goal percentage defense (holding opponents to 37 percent) and scoring defense (54.8 ppg). Those are categories the Panthers traditionally have dominated while consistently being one of the best defensive teams in Division I.

Dixon said when he saw Clemson's statistics he asked his players to take it personal and to have the pride to show that, even though they are scoring more than they have in recent years, they still are a great defensive team.

"We really used that as motivation, we talked about [Clemson's defense] for the last few days," Dixon said after the game. "We talked about them being the best field-goal percentage defense in the conference and [that] their numbers are remarkable. We wanted to make a statement and prove that we can become the best defensive team in the conference.

"We haven't been, we are a work in progress. We have had some moments, we have improved and we have had three or four games where we were really good, and this was one of them.

"We constantly talked about their 36 percent field-goal defense, we had to hold them under 36 percent, we used that as motivation, their number had to be our number."

Pitt held the Tigers to less than 36 percent as Clemson was 16 of 50 from the field (32 percent) and 4 of 19 from the 3-point range (21 percent).

Those are the kind of statistics Dixon's teams generally have produced, but he said this team has not been good enough defensively. He pointed to his team's youth and the abundance of new players as the main reasons for that. He added that playing defense at a high level is usually a difficult thing to learn.

Interestingly enough, Clemson coach Brad Brownell said he is building his program with some of the same principles and fundamentals that Dixon has used, starting with an emphasis on playing great defense and rebounding.

He said what's most impressive about the Panthers' defense is it thrives on being in good position and guarding the basket instead taking a lot of chances and getting out of position going for steals.

Dixon said he has liked the trend he has seen in recent weeks, but he is most excited about the fact that, with five new (first-year) players playing so many key minutes and key roles, the sky is the limit in terms of how good they can become.

"We're still a work in progress, we're not there yet," Dixon said. "But I believe we will continue to get better; it is something we emphasize, something we work on, something we have prided ourselves around here on for a long time.

"The freshmen are all getting better and better, and that is what is exciting."

Although the Panthers have not met Dixon's lofty standards, it isn't as if they have been bad defensively.

Pitt is fifth in the ACC in scoring defense (59.2 points per game) and seventh in field-goal percentage defense .397. Those statistics have improved as the season has progressed.

The Panthers also lead the league in rebounding defense (28.2 rpg) and rebounding margin (plus-9.2), meaning they have been good in all categories Dixon uses to measure defensive effectiveness.

The Panthers (17-2, 5-1 ACC) will look to continue to improve defensively Saturday when they visit Maryland (11-8, 3-3). Pitt routed Maryland, 79-59, Jan. 6 at the Petersen Events Center, holding the Terrapins to 35.7 percent from the field (20 of 56) and forcing 13 turnovers.

■ Game: No. 20 Pitt (17-2, 5-1 ACC) at Maryland (11-8, 3-3).

■ When: 6 p.m. Saturday.

■ TV: ESPN2.

Paul Zeise:, 412-263-1720 or Twitter @paulzeise.

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