The losses are starting to pile up for Pitt, and there does not appear to be any answers forthcoming from coach Jamie Dixon. A 66-63 loss to Cincinnati Sunday night at Petersen Events Center was the third consecutive setback for the Panthers and placed them in an unfamiliar position.
It is the first time since the 1999-2000 season that the Panthers are 0-2 in Big East Conference play. It's also only the third time in Dixon's nine seasons as head coach that the Panthers have lost three consecutive games.
For Pitt (11-4, 0-2), it was the third loss of the season at home. The Panthers had lost only 11 times at home the past nine seasons combined.
"They put their hearts out there this week getting ready to play this game," Dixon said. "We're really disappointed with the outcome. We just have to keep battling and keep our heads up. We have the guys to get it done."
Pitt had to play again without point guard Tray Woodall, and his absence was critical against the pressing Bearcats, who forced 17 turnovers and kept the Panthers out of a steady offensive rhythm. Woodall missed his sixth game in the past seven with an abdominal injury, and opponents have taken advantage of Pitt's inability to handle pressure without him. In a Dec. 23 home loss to Wagner, Pitt committed 18 turnovers.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin played a sixth consecutive game without starting center Yancy Gates and two other post players who were suspended by the school after a Dec. 10 brawl against Xavier. Cronin's small four-guard lineup proved to be bothersome for the Panthers, whose recent shooting struggles continued. They shot 41 percent and made only 5 of 19 shots from behind the 3-point line. They are 15 for 82 from 3-point range in the past five games.
"We just missed too many shots, had too many turnovers," said Pitt senior guard Ashton Gibbs, who scored 18 points, but continued to struggle from the perimeter. He missed 5 of 7 shots from 3-point range.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, created mismatches on the defensive end for the Panthers, who did not guard the 3-point line too well. The Bearcats made 11 of 27 shots from 3-point range and earned the victory despite being outrebounded, 44-30.
JaQuon Parker made all four of his 3-pointers in the first half and finished with a game-high 21 points. Sean Kilpatrick led the way in the second half and finished with 19.
Kilpatrick scored 14 of his points after the intermission, including a critical 3-pointer that gave the Bearcats the lead after Pitt surged ahead for a short-lived 48-47 lead with 12 minutes remaining.
Pitt had several opportunities late in the game to tie or go ahead, but Cincinnati's defense was the difference. Pitt had the ball and trailed, 59-57, but Gibbs had his shot blocked by Dion Dixon, who corralled the ball and went in for a dunk to make it a four-point game.
"That was a big play," Cronin said. "Our defense on that play forced Gibbs into that shot. That whole possession and that play by Dion was huge."
Pitt had three more opportunities to tie or cut into Cincinnati's three-point lead in the final minute because Cincinnati opened the door by missing free throws. But John Johnson was called for a charge with 18 seconds remaining after Parker missed the front end of a one-and-one. After Kilpatrick was fouled with 17.2 seconds left, he missed the front end of his one-and-one.
Pitt got the ball to Gibbs, but he missed a contested 3-pointer. Lamar Patterson got the offensive rebound, and Dixon called a timeout with 2.4 seconds left to set up the final play.
This time, Cincinnati had Gibbs blanketed, and the inbounds pass was forced to Patterson. He missed a long 3-pointer from the top of the key.
Gibbs said the team remains upbeat despite the recent adversity.
"We're still confident," he said. "It's one loss. We just have to practice a little harder. This is just a little struggle. At the end of the day, this team is capable of beating anybody."
NOTES -- Pitt lost reserve forward/center Talib Zanna late in the first half with concussion-like symptoms after he was hit in the nose. He did not return in the second half. ... Nasir Robinson had 19 points and 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the season. ... Pitt's next game is 7 p.m. Thursday at DePaul.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published January 2, 2012 5:00 AM