By Paul Zeise
NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Pitt has won a lot of games over the past decade with great defense, but Saturday the Panthers found themselves in the unfamiliar position of playing against a Notre Dame team they couldn’t seem to stop from scoring.
That’s OK, though, because the Panthers went out of character and decided their best defense may be just to keep scoring themselves.
And to achieve that, they did what they do better than most — they pounded the offensive glass and created second scoring opportunities.
The result was an exciting 85-81 overtime ACC win against the Fighting Irish before a crowd of 9,149 at Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center on a day when Notre Dame said goodbye to its senior class.
Pitt outrebounded the Irish, 38-22, had 21 offensive rebounds and turned them into 21 second-chance points. Pitt outscored the Irish, 42-18, in the paint.
The Panthers needed to be that good on the offensive glass — as well as at the free-throw line where they made 24 of 28 attempts (85.7 percent) — because Notre Dame was scorching shooting the ball.
“Notre Dame’s shooting was great, but we withstood their barrage,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “It says a lot about our guys. It was a great character game for us, to just keep battling, keep fighting. But for us, it is always about rebounding and often when we haven’t, we have fallen short.
“When you play a team that has shooters, you have got to hurt them in other ways and that is what we did. You always love seeing good rebounding numbers because it is such an effort stat and that’s why we’re so good at it. It is something we have emphasized.”
The Panthers rebounding was one part of their offense but they also made a concerted effort to take advantage of their mismatch inside. They went early and often to their big guys and had a lot of success despite falling behind by 12 points early.
Leading that charge under the basket was senior Talib Zanna, who had 17 points and 14 rebounds, but the Panthers also got good production out of freshman forward Michael Young (13 points, 3 rebounds).
Young, who was 6 of 6 from the free-throw line, said it wasn’t a coincidence that the Panthers pounded the ball into the paint so hard.
“Controlling the boards and making our free throws is what kept us in the game and what ultimately got us the win,” Young said. “From the beginning of the game we felt like we could exploit them down low with our big players being a lot quicker than their big players.
“In overtime, that is how the game played out, there wasn’t an emphasis on getting it down low, we were just trying to get the ball to the basket and getting easy points around the rim.”
The win breaks a string of five consecutive losses to the Irish and three losses in a row on the road. The Panthers had not beaten the Irish since 2009 and hadn’t won at Notre Dame since 2005.
It was the second consecutive road win for the Panthers (22-7, 10-6) as they continue to shore up their NCAA tournament resume down the stretch.
Notre Dame (15-15, 6-11) led by as many as 12 points early and finished the first half shooting 73.7 percent, 14 of 19 from the field and 7 of 9 from the 3-point line.
But the Irish only led by four at the half, 39-35, because the Panthers had 12 offensive rebounds and 13 second-chance points.
That boded well for the Panthers in the second half, which began with an 8-2 run. The Panthers took their first lead of the second half, 43-41, on a three-point play by Cameron Wright with 17:05 to play.
Overall, Notre Dame shot 54.8 percent (23 of 42) from the field and 52.2 percent (12 of 23) from the 3-point line, keeping the pressure on the Panthers the entire game.
“They shoot the heck out of the ball,” Lamar Patterson said. “They came out shooting hot. We knew they had shooters and I think there is something with those rims, they are super soft or something. It’s crazy.”
The game remained close as neither team could mount a run. Pitt’s lead was only three, 65-62, after Patterson made a jumper with 1:17 to play.
Wright missed the front end of a one-and-one, which could have secured the game and on the ensuing possession, before V.J. Beachem made a 3-pointer to tie the score with 7.7 seconds to play.
The Panthers had one final shot at the end of regulation. Patterson got the ball at the top of the key, but Dixon called a timeout with 2.8 seconds left. They then ran a play for James Robinson, who missed a 15-foot fadeaway at the buzzer.
Dixon said he didn’t like the spacing on the play so he called the timeout.
“I thought it was terrific, the shot at the end,” Dixon said. “I thought we put it in a good situation. I didn’t like our spacing and that’s what we did [call a timeout]. We got a good look. Any time you miss a shot, you can question that shot.”
Overtime was more of the same as neither team could shake the other. Freshman Steve Vasturia kept the Irish in the game by scoring 12 of his 15 points in the extra period.
But the Panthers, who finally took a two-possession lead, 76-72, on a dunk by Zanna with 43 seconds to play, made 14 of 15 free throws in the overtime period and held on for the win.
Patterson led the Panthers with 20 points and seven assists, and Wright added 15 points and five rebounds.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 and Twitter: @paulzeise First Published March 1, 2014 4:51 PM