Pitt had a 10-day break between its previous game and Tuesday, when the Panthers played host to Albany, so, not surprising, they were a little sluggish early and got off to a slow start.
But then they got into a zone and it changed the game.
Literally, that is, as in a 2-3 zone defense that Albany coach Will Brown admitted gave his team fits. The result was an old-school, grind-it-out, 58-46 win for Pitt and coach Jamie Dixon before a crowd of 10,049 at Petersen Events Center.
"I really didn't think Jamie was going to pull out his inner Jim Boeheim and go as much 2-3 zone as they did, but that really gave us problems," Brown said, referring to the longtime Syracuse coach. "They were active in the zone, they made us uncomfortable at times, but I thought after we got down 16 we settled down and were much more efficient on offense.
"But we had to work hard on offense and their zone was a big reason for that."
Dixon said he wants to use the zone a lot more than he has, but there haven't been many opportunities given the matchups the Panthers have had in recent weeks.
He also said the Panthers haven't been a great rebounding team out of the zone, so he has been hesitant to use it. But he thought it would be a perfect defense against the Great Danes, who are efficient, like to control the clock but don't shoot a lot of 3-pointers and aren't the most physical team.
"They are very well coached and well schooled in what they want to do," Dixon said. "We had to recognize their patience and be patient defensively. I thought [the zone] would work, and it did. I have been wanting to use the zone more, but we haven't really been in the situation to use it, but I thought they might be a team that it would be good to use against.
"I'm glad we rebounded out of it; that is obviously my concern with using the zone, the rebounding and being able to take care of business on that end. I thought it was good, there were a lot of good things about it."
The Panthers' defense and rebounding -- they beat the Great Danes on the boards, 40-27 -- were points of emphasis by Dixon over the long layoff.
As he often says, defense and rebounding are the Panthers' "bread and butter," and Brown agreed, saying that is how they have won a lot of games under Dixon regardless of how well they are playing offensively.
This game was a perfect example. The Panthers were atrocious from the 3-point line (1 for 10) and missed their first seven free throws, yet led by 10 at the half and enjoyed a comfortable lead for most of the second half.
The Panthers got off to a rough start offensively and trailed, 18-16, after Albany's Sam Rowley hit a jump shot with 8:15 to play in the first half.
But Cameron Wright found his stroke with a couple of baseline jump shots and scored eight consecutive points in a 12-0 Pitt run that culminated with a basket by James Robinson to put the Panthers (12-1) ahead, 28-18, at halftime.
Wright, who had 14 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists, said that stretch was more a matter of the Panthers running good offense and getting him open looks than anything he did.
He said the Panthers were not as patient as they needed to be early in the game, but once they began to run their offense some easy looks opened up and he was fortunate enough to make the shots.
"I give credit to my teammates. I like roaming the baseline a lot and they know that," Wright said. "And the big guys are aware of that and do a great job of setting screens and getting me open and all I have to do is knock down open shots. I just like [the baseline] a lot. I can't explain it, I feel like I am quick, and like I said, the big guys do a great job of screening."
Lamar Patterson, who scored 14 points and grabbed three rebounds, said the Panthers did struggle some on offense, mostly because the Great Danes clog the lane and slow the game down by taking away transition opportunities.
"That's the way Albany played us, they played us to slow us down," said Patterson, who became the 42nd player in Pitt history to reach 1,000 career points and now has 1,013.
"They were sagging in the paint a lot, so this was just one of those games we were happy to get out of with a W."
The Panthers began the second half with an 8-2 run to open a 36-20 lead and held Albany without a field goal for 13:25 between the final minutes of the first half and beginning of the second half.
Pitt seemed to be in complete control when Patterson made a jump shot to give the Panthers a 46-30 lead with 9:42 to play, but the Great Danes fought back and made an 11-2 run to pull to within 48-41 with 3:33 to play.
But Wright and Talib Zanna made back-to-back layups to stop the run and the Panthers went 6 of 6 from the free-throw line down the stretch to pull away and secure the victory.
Zanna added 10 points and nine rebounds for the Panthers, who open Atlantic Coast Conference play Saturday at North Carolina State. DJ Evans led Albany (6-7) with 18 points.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 or Twitter: @paulzeise First Published December 31, 2013 3:42 PM