PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Second-ranked Pitt knew it would be in for a tough, grinding game Saturday night at Rutgers because the Scarlet Knights are always tough at the Louis Brown Athletic Center -- also known as simply the RAC.
And true to form, Rutgers came out on fire and pushed the Panthers to the brink, but also true to form, Pitt survived the scare and found a way to beat the Scarlet Knights, 65-62.
It was the sixth consecutive time the Panthers have beaten the Scarlet Knights (12-9, 3-6 in the Big East) at the RAC and 11th time in the past 12 games of the series that Pitt has prevailed.
Pitt also got back to its roots of winning games with tough defense, and that was needed because the Panthers had their worst shooting night this season. They made only 35.6 percent of their shots (16 of 45) and were only 5 of 16 from the 3-point line (31.3 percent).
But what the Panthers lacked in shooting from the field, they more than made up for at the free-throw line as they made 28 of 35 of their free throws (80 percent), including 9 of 10 down the stretch.
"We're not clicking right now offensively, but part of that was it was a physical game," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We didn't shoot it well, but I was happy with our rebounding and we stepped up and made big plays when we needed to and I liked the way we shot from the free-throw line.
"We won tonight with our defense, that was good to see, and, hopefully, we'll see more of that because lately we've been relying a little too much on our offense, and there will be nights when you don't shoot well. When you're not making shots, you have to be able to defend and get stops and grab the rebound and not let them get that second shot."
Pitt trailed at halftime by one point, and the Panthers did not take their first lead until Gary McGhee made a layup with 18:55 left in the game.
After that, the Panthers maintained a slim lead most of the rest of the way, but they could not pull away. They were clinging to a 58-57 lead with one minute left.
But Ashton Gibbs seemed to ice the game when he hit a 3-pointer with 58 seconds remaining to give the Panthers a 61-57 lead. After a Rutgers free throw, he hit two free throws 10 seconds later to stretch the margin to 63-58.
"That was a good look, Gary [MaGhee] did a great job of finding me," Gibbs said of the 3-pointer. "And I just got a good look at the basket. I knew it was deep, but the shot clock was running down and I knew I'd have a good shot so I took it."
McGhee, who had 13 points and eight rebounds, did more than get the ball to Gibbs. He also set a screen for Gibbs, making it possible for him to get an open look at the basket.
Rutgers, however, was not done as they got two free throws from Mike Coburn, forced a Pitt turnover and scored on Robert Lumpkins' layup with 21 seconds left. All that pulled the Scarlet Knights to within a point at 63-62.
Brad Wanamaker made two free throws to extend Pitt's lead to 65-62 and Dane Miller's three-point attempt with three seconds left missed the mark and the Panthers cleared the rebound to hang on for the win.
Rutgers coach Mike Rice said the play was designed to be a three-point attempt for James Beatty, but he was guarded, and the Scarlet Knights had to settle for Miller's off-balance shot.
He said that was one of many examples of how Pitt's maturity and experience in winning tough games was the difference.
"Rutgers showed a lot of toughness tonight, we had a lot of fight," Rice said. "But Pitt just keeps winging, and they don't stop. They are as tough as they come as far as being physical and seeking contact.
"We played with purpose, we showed some toughness, we at times got in our own way, and they are at a different stage than us right now as a program, and it showed because they made simple plays, but winning plays.
"I'm happy with how hard we played, but we're beyond the pat-on-the-back-for-playing-hard stage because it is winning time, and we need to learn how to win these kinds of games."
The victory kept the Panthers (20-2, 8-1) in sole possession of first place of the Big East Conference, and they got some help yesterday in their quest to win the regular-season title as two of the three teams who trailed them in the loss column by only a game -- Villanova and Connecticut -- lost yesterday.
As a result, Louisville (17-4, 6-2) remains alone in second place and is the only team besides Pitt with less than three conference losses.
The victory marks the 10th consecutive season that Pitt has won at least 20 games, and it was the Panthers' 11th Big East win in their past 12 league games. The Panthers also remained the only Big East team without a conference road loss as they improved to 4-0 in league games away from home.
Gibbs led all scorers with 24 points, and Wanamaker added nine points and four rebounds. Coburn, Lumpkins and Jonathan Mitchell each scored 12 points for Rutgers.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720.