Pitt guard Cameron Wright drives to the net against Penn State forward Alan Wisniewski in the second half at the Petersen Events Center Tuesday night.
Matt Freed /Post-Gazette
Pitt players Derrick Randall, James Robinson and Michael Young celebrate a basket by Talib Zanna against Penn State in the second half at the Petersen Events Center Tuesday night.
Matt Freed /Post-Gazette
Members of the Pitt Zoo, along with a Jamie Dixon cutout try to distract a Penn State player as he attempts a free throw in the second half at the Petersen Events Center Tuesday night.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pitt Panthers struggled offensively in the first half Tuesday night against Penn State, and it was really the first time this season that they couldn't get good shots or get shots to fall.
And that was a huge reason they trailed the Nittany Lions at the half by two points, their first halftime deficit this season But Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said his halftime speech didn't involve a lot of screaming and ranting, just a simple reminder of how they are supposed to play.
"I don't know how many times I said it at the half, but I simply point out we only had three assists," Dixon said after the Panthers pulled out a 78-69 victory.
"Three assists, that is not good, and anybody could have gone into that locker room and pointed to that statistic and keep reminding them that we are almost always among the leaders in the country in assists."
That speech didn't really help the Panthers a ton in the assist category -- they only had six in the second half -- but it did remind them that they needed to be more patient and share the ball. The result was a tougher-than-expected victory before a crowd of 12,510 at Petersen Events Center in a Big Ten/ACC challenge game.
It was the sixth time in a row that the Panthers (8-0) beat the Nittany Lions (6-3), but unlike the previous five, which were won by an average of 28.5 points, this game was competitive.
Dixon said that he was proud of the way his team responded in the second half, but that they needed to play better in the first half, especially on offense.
Pitt shot 28 percent from the field in the first half (7 of 25) but hit 58.6 percent (17 of 29) in the second by attacking the rim.
"It was not a good first half for us," Dixon said. "We didn't let things come to us, we were forcing stuff and trying to make plays and we were fortunate to get a win over a good team.
"But we thought we could get layups against them. We shot too many jump shots in the first half and we put them at the line too much. They are small and we had to attack them inside and they will be in foul trouble the way they play.
"We are a hard team to zone, so we knew we could get points at the rim and Talib [Zanna] did a nice job of scoring."
Zanna, a senior, was a big factor in the second half as he carried the offense in a 9-2 run midway through the half, as well as the deciding 10-3 burst in the final three minutes.
Zanna finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds and also had a career-high four blocked shots. The Panthers also got a big second-half effort from senior Lamar Patterson, who finished with 16 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists.
Patterson said that the Panthers needed to find an extra gear down the stretch.
He said it was something the seniors have learned through the years and are trying to pass down to the younger players.
"We have that mental toughness," Patterson said. "We hadn't really been tested, but we were behind Duquesne, and now tonight, two good teams, and they were beating us and we had to fight through it. We learned a lot about each other, the freshmen know what it takes to grind things out and find a way to win.
"That is the definition of Pitt basketball -- grind teams out and keep fighting every night."
Although Pitt won, the Nittany Lions got another great effort from their sensational guards, DJ Newbill and Tim Frazier.
Frazier had 27 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, and Newbill added 18 points and five rebounds.
Pitt finished with another excellent game shooting free throws, going 28 of 35 (80 percent). The Panthers outrebounded the Nittany Lions, 38-29.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 or Twitter @paulzeise.
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