There was a time when Pitt excelled in low-scoring, defensive games. It was the team's calling card in the early years of coach Jamie Dixon's tenure.
Anyone remember the first NCAA tournament victory for Dixon? The final score was 53-44.
It might not have been aesthetically pleasing, but it was effective. Kind of like Notre Dame's 56-51 victory Monday night against Pitt at Petersen Events Center.
Opposing teams despised playing against those Pitt teams because they were so effective in games where defense and possessions were valued the most. The Panthers frustrated teams with their defense and ran a disciplined half-court offense that thrived on scoring late in the shot clock.
Now the tables are turned, and it is the Panthers who don't appear very comfortable in games of this nature.
At least it certainly appears that way when the Panthers play Notre Dame. Irish coach Mike Brey has taken a page out of Dixon's old playbook and has used it to beat the Panthers the past three times he has played them.
The latest came Monday night when the Irish held the Panthers to a season-low point total and shooting percentage (40.0). This loss came after two last season, including one in the Big East Conference tournament when the Panthers managed just 45 points.
"That's their formula for us," Pitt senior Gilbert Brown said. "That's how they feel they're most effective against us. We have to adjust. We failed to meet the challenge they brought."
Pitt players believed they learned a lesson. The Panthers said they have to recognize the importance of every possession when they are playing in games when the opponent holds the ball and shortens the game.
Dixon remarked afterward that mistakes are magnified in low possession games. The Panthers rushed some shots and attempted to create their own shots on many occasions when passing would have been a better option.
This is completely out of character for a team that leads NCAA Division I in assists and is second in assist-to-turnover ratio.
"I don't think we played our game," senior guard Brad Wanamaker said. "We usually pass the ball around and get good shots. We kind of rushed it a little bit. We looked for our own. That's a trend we can't continue."
Wanamaker and Gibbs are Pitt's top two scorers, but Notre Dame was able to put them in positions where they were not as effective.
Gibbs was 4 for 13 from the field and 1 for 5 from 3-point range. The Irish, following the cue of some of Pitt's recent opponents, overplayed Gibbs at the 3-point line and forced him to put the ball on the floor and take pull-up jump shots or drive to the basket.
Gibbs has struggled with his mid-range game. In the past four games, he is 15 for 49 from the field and 6 for 24 from inside the 3-point line.
Wanamaker, who is third in the Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio, had three assists and three turnovers against Notre Dame. He also admitted to being one of the players who rushed shots on an occasion.
Pitt's defensive deficiencies were magnified as well. The Panthers could not find a way to stop Irish guard Ben Hansbrough when it mattered most. Hansbrough either drove past Gibbs for layups or stepped back and made 3-pointers when the Panthers switched on the high screen, and centers Dante Taylor or Gary McGhee had to defend him.
Hanbrough scored 19 points, but he hurt the Panthers most late in the game when he scored four baskets in the final 41/2 minutes.
"We just couldn't contain him off the dribble," Dixon said. "I was surprised at how he was able to beat us off the dribble. He played really well. You have to give him credit. He made shots and distributed the ball really well. He's a good player. Start with that. He has hurt a lot of teams."
Pitt might not have to play against another team that plays in the manner Notre Dame did Monday night. The Irish have a veteran team with players who are willing and capable of executing the slow-down game.
Unless, of course, the Panthers happen to draw the Irish again in the Big East tournament. If that happens, Wanamaker and his teammates are eager to show they can win a game any way the opponent wants to play it.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.