Pitt senior Lamar Patterson said the Panthers spend a lot of time at practice working on offensive execution, ball movement and passing — and it shows almost every time they take the court, as they have developed a reputation as one of the most unselfish teams in the country.
But beyond practice and execution, Patterson said that being unselfish is a mindset and one of the greatest strengths of this group of Panthers as all of them are focused solely on winning and not their individual statistics.
This trait showed up again in a big way Saturday as the Panthers carved their way through Wake Forest’s defense with precision and cruised to an 80-65 win against the Demon Deacons before a crowd of 12,515 at Petersen Events Center.
Pitt, which had 18 assists on its first 22 field goals and finished with 19 assists, scored the first two baskets of the game and for the sixth time this season led from start to finish.
The Panthers jumped to an 8-1 lead and led by double digits before the game was seven minutes old.
It was the third consecutive conference win for the Panthers (15-1, 3-0 ACC) and marks the first time since the 2010-11 season the Panthers opened conference play with three wins.
Leading the way for the Panthers were their two seniors. Patterson had 27 points and five rebounds and Talib Zanna registered his 11th career double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds).
Patterson said that a game like this one, where the Panthers are getting easy baskets because they are sharing the ball and finding the open man, is a lot of fun because everybody got to contribute.
“We practice hard at playing good basketball,” said Patterson, whose six assists led the Panthers. “And sharing the ball and everybody getting the ball, it is fun. The game is fun and you want to play in games where all of your teammates and friends are getting looks, also.”
Sophomore point guard James Robinson added: “We have a team made up of all unselfish players and we are all capable passers, so that is just something we do — make sure we share the ball and make sure we get an open shot.”
Robinson said that mindset and tone of unselfish play is set by the coaching staff but carried on by Patterson and Zanna, who are not only the team’s top two players, but also understand the importance of playing team basketball.
“A lot of it comes from Lamar and Talib,” Robinson said. “Both may be scoring a lot, but they are two of the most unselfish players on the team. Both are good passers and that creates open shots for them, as well.”
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said that the best thing about this win for him is that the Panthers played great team offense, as well as great team defense and the more they play that way, the better they will become.
He said Wake Forest presented some challenges offensively that the Panthers were able to adjust to and stop, and that was a key early in the game when they built their lead.
“I am really excited about how we played,” Dixon said. “I thought our half-court defense in the first half was terrific. They are a team that can score the basketball and they hurt us a little bit in transition, but in the half-court, we were really sound.
“And we moved the ball really well. I think we only had three turnovers in the first half.”
Pitt led, 40-26, at the half and while the Panthers were in full control of the game, the Demon Deacons still had a chance to get back into it and maybe even come all the way back and win.
That, however, was not in the plan as the Panthers came out after the half and, much like the first half, took it right to Wake Forest and never let the Demon Deacons back into the game.
The Panthers scored on nine of their first 10 second-half possessions and pushed their lead to 19 on an old-fashioned three-point play by Patterson with 13:47 to play.
Although the Panthers offense made it difficult for the Demon Deacons to make up ground, their defense and rebounding were superb again, as well, as they held the Demon Deacons under 40 percent from the field (20 of 51) and outrebounded them, 38-28.
And perhaps a better indicator of how much the Panthers dominated the boards — at one point they led the rebounding margin by 15 — is that they had 19 second-chance points and as many offensive rebounds (16) as Wake Forest had defensive rebounds.
“Pitt was tougher on the boards than we were,” Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “Two plays [stand out]: their rebound off a missed free throw in the first half when we had a chance to cut it to six or seven, and in the second beating us to a loose ball, just really typified the game in terms of how they got to loose balls and we didn’t, as well as their toughness on the glass.
“And they are very sound offensively, they don’t turn the ball over and they don’t beat themselves and they have one of the elite players in the league in terms of how good he is in Lamar Patterson. He is a great leader, he is tough and gritty and can score in a variety of ways.”
Devin Thomas, who is from Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg, led Wake Forest (11-5, 1-2) with 17 points and nine rebounds, but fouled out.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 or twitter: @paulzeise. First Published January 11, 2014 2:20 PM