Healthier Panthers put losing skid in the past

PITT BASKETBALL



Pitt had a stretch of five losses in seven games from Jan. 27 to Feb. 23, and there were questions about whether the Panthers would recover in time to secure an NCAA tournament berth.

But the Panthers got healthy, regrouped and won three of their next four. Then they won two games last week at the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., before losing a 51-48 heartbreaker Saturday to eventual champion Virginia in a semifinal.

Coach Jamie Dixon and his players said that loss was disappointing, but the way they played in Greensboro gives them confidence this week as they enter the NCAA tournament.

Dixon said the Panthers are playing their best basketball of the season and that is the way every team wants to go into the NCAA tournament.

"We are excited about how we are playing right now," Dixon said. "We have three practices to keep improving. Our 7-2 record on the road is the best in the conference and we really did a good job of recovering from [the loss of Durand Johnson]. And now we are healthier, Lamar Patterson is healthy, Talib [Zanna] is obviously healthy and we saw that in the ACC tournament."

Pitt's players said that even when they were losing and things weren't going well, they knew they were a good team that just needed to get back on track and get healthier.

"We always had a good feeling about ourselves. Even when we lost a few games, we feel like we showed all season that we could play with anyone," said junior Cameron Wright. "A lot of games came down to the buzzer or were one-possession games and I think we gained a lot of confidence this past week by winning some games."

Guard James Robinson said: "Sometimes you go through ups and downs, but the key was we just stuck together and kept fighting and kept trying to get through those tough losses."

Robinson, like Zanna and Patterson, also dealt with an injury down the stretch. He was slowed by a pulled quad muscle and even though he battled through it and kept playing, it was clear he wasn't the same.

But the time off between the end of the regular season and the ACC tournament allowed him to rest, and he played some of his best offensive games of the season in Greensboro, looking much more comfortable moving around on the court.

"I am feeling pretty good, but I think we played unselfish this past week and that helped me get open shots and really helped us as a team," Robinson said. "As long as we limit our mistakes, we will be fine."

Pitt (25-9) is the No.9 seed in the South Region and will play against No. 8 seed Colorado (23-11) out of the Pac-12 Conference at 1:40 p.m. Thursday in Orlando, Fla.

The Panthers have played Colorado once -- in 1931 -- and Pitt won, 25-23. Beyond that, it is difficult to get an idea of how they match up because they play on opposite coasts and have just one common opponent in Stanford.

"It is a different style of game, to be honest," Wright said. "West Coast basketball, watching it on television, it is pretty different from the East style and the Midwest style of basketball. So it will be a pretty exciting game with both teams playing a different style and trying to be versatile and play against each other.

"But we look forward to [playing new teams]. I wish we would get more of an opportunity to play throughout the season against teams from all across the country, and that is what the NCAA brings to us, a chance to play new teams, see new places and different styles."

Colorado features three players who average double figures, sophomore forward Josh Scott (14.1 points per game), junior guard Askia Booker (14.0 ppg) and sophomore forward Xavier Johnson (12.0 ppg).

But the Buffaloes are without their top player, point guard Spencer Dinwiddie (14.7 ppg), who was lost for the season with a torn ACL in late January.

With Dinwiddie, they were 14-3, but without him they are 9-8 and have remade themselves into more of a defensive team that thrives on rebounding and second-chance opportunities.


Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.

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