GREENSBORO, N.C. -- North Carolina is the best offensive rebounding team in the ACC and the Tar Heels generate a lot of offense through second-chance points.
But Pitt and senior Talib Zanna beat the Tar Heels at their game Friday and, as a result, the Panthers are headed to the ACC tournament semifinals in their first season in the conference.
The Panthers jumped to a big lead early then survived a few tense moments late and beat the Tar Heels, 80-75, in a quarterfinal game before a mostly powder-blue-laden crowd of 21,533 at Greensboro Coliseum.
Pitt (25-8), the No. 5 seed, next plays No. 1 seed Virginia (26-6) at 1 p.m. today in a semifinal matchup. The Cavaliers advanced with a 64-51 victory against No. 9 Florida State (19-13) in the first game of the day.
Virginia beat Pitt, 48-45, on a last-second 3-pointer by Malcolm Brogdon Feb. 2 at Petersen Events Center, but Pitt standout Lamar Patterson, who had 12 points Friday, said that game only proved that the two teams are evenly matched.
"We lost that game at the buzzer," Patterson said of the previous meeting. "That game could have gone either way. We'll be ready for it. We know we can play with them or any team in the country, we feel like. We'll have our minds and body ready."
One thing is for certain, if the Panthers get the kind of game from Zanna they got against the Tar Heels, they are going to be very tough to beat.
Zanna was, for the second day in a row, a one-man wrecking crew as he scored 19 points and grabbed 21 rebounds -- including 10 offensive rebounds -- and kept the Tar Heels at arm's length in the second half with a series of three consecutive offensive rebounds and put-backs.
It is the first time the Panthers have had a player grab 20 or more rebounds since DeJuan Blair had 23 Feb. 16, 2009, in a 76-68 win at Connecticut. Zanna's 10 offensive rebounds are the third most in school history.
Pitt, which never trailed, outscored the Tar Heels, 21-6, in second-chance points. Most that was Zanna because the other seven Panthers that played had only two offensive rebounds combined.
Pitt guard Cameron Wright said the thing about Zanna's performance of late is that he is playing a lot like a senior who doesn't want his career to end.
"He knows his time is ticking," Wright said of Zanna. "It is now or never for him and he knows it. He is playing like a guy who wants to make sure he ends his career the right way. If we lost today we would still have the [NCAA] tournament to look forward to but he is taking it one day at a time and trying to cherish these moments.
"He knows he is coming down to his last game in college basketball and he wants to finish playing his best basketball. But this is something I've seen from Talib every day at practice. He works his behind off every day and it is translating into his play on the court."
Zanna wasn't the only star of this show, though, as the Panthers got a career-high 19 points from James Robinson, who also added 6 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 assists.
Robinson's ability to attack the basket early and knock down shots sparked an impressive 17-1 run by the Panthers midway through the first half. That culminated with Zanna tipping in a missed shot for a 25-8 lead with 7:48 left until halftime.
Pitt then pushed its lead to 18 points with two free throws from Robinson, but the Tar Heels made a 17-9 run to end the half and closed to 36-26.
Neither team could get much going early in the second half but Zanna's three consecutive tip-ins off of missed shots sparked a 7-0 run.
Patterson then converted a 3-pointer and Wright threw what appeared to be the knock-out blow when he hit a layup with 11:43 to play that pushed the lead to 19, 50-31.
Pitt maintained at least a 10-point lead from the 9:27 mark of the first half until Marcus Paige, who scored a game-high 27 points, hit a 3-pointer with 2:12 to play in the game to pull the Tar Heels to 73-65.
North Carolina used full-court pressure and got help from Pitt's missed free throws to claw back into the game. When Nate Britt made a long jumper with 12 seconds left, it pulled the Tar Heels to 78-75.
But Robinson made two free throws with 11.4 seconds to play and the Panthers held on for the win after making just 21 of 41 (51.2 percent) free throws.
"We knew they would make a run. There was a lot of light-blue shirts in the stands so they knew they had a lot of people backing them," Wright said. "But we tried to play our defense, play Pittsburgh defense, and we are able to keep the lead [at 10 or more] for a long period of time.
"Paige is a tremendous player, a tremendous shooter and he doesn't hesitate to let it go and fire it. In the first half, I was just trying to pressure him a little bit and not let him get any easy shots and I feel like that allowed us to get a big lead in the first half."
Virginia is a far more patient team on offense and plays great half-court defense, so the semifinal likely will be played a much slower pace.
"I think their balance is really their strength," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said of Virginia.
"I think because Joe [Harris] was picked as a preseason all-league player, the focus is on him, but obviously other guys have progressed and they've got balanced scoring all the way through."
m, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise First Published March 14, 2014 4:58 PM