The first Savannah State basket came early and easily, but the ensuing six-minute scoring drought left the Tigers with a 17-point deficit and effectively erased any preseason premonitions that the visitors might possibly knock off Pitt in this season opener.
The Panthers (1-0) rode a quick start to a 27-point halftime lead and an 88-55 victory against Savannah State (0-1) of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Friday night at Petersen Events Center to open the season in winning fashion before a crowd of 9,235.
The Tigers shot a dismal 17.4 percent from the floor in the first half and slunk back to the locker room at halftime trailing, 40-13, the third-fewest first-half points allowed by Pitt in team history.
On the other end, 10 of the 11 Panthers players that saw action against Savannah State managed to score.
Junior center Derrick Randall, an offseason transfer from Rutgers, earned a start in place of redshirt senior Talib Zanna, who was suspended for the game for an unspecified violation of team rules. Randall led the balanced scoring effort with 12 points and 12 rebounds, career highs in both categories.
It was a debut performance, Randall said, that "was just about proving to everybody that I can play."
"Derrick was a force down low," senior forward Lamar Patterson said. "That's what we expect from him."
Also scoring in double digits were sophomore guard James Robinson (13), redshirt sophomore forward Durand Johnson (12), freshman guard Josh Newkirk (11), Patterson (11) and redshirt junior guard Cameron Wright (10).
Pitt bullied the Tigers for a 47-28 rebounding edge and 36 points in the paint despite having limited depth in the frontcourt with the absences of Zanna and redshirt junior forward Aron Nwankwo, who had returned home to Baltimore to tend to his ailing mother.
The Panthers shot a healthy 50 percent from the floor and held the Tigers to 31.3 percent shooting, but they did show some early season nerves, committing 16 turnovers, only one less than they forced on defense.
"We just got sped up with the constant traps and constant pressuring," coach Jamie Dixon said.
Despite seven newcomers making their Pitt debuts, Dixon swore he would never use the youthful flavor as an excuse.
"I've never done it and I'm not going to start this year," he said. "We've got four experienced guys and then the young guys. I could sit here and give you the speech, all the excuses, but you'd give me a hard time and we don't want to do that."
All five freshmen on the squad registered at least two points, even walk-on guard Joshua Ko, who entered in the final minute and hit a mid-range transition jumper to send the student section into a frenzy in the game's closing moments.
Freshman forward Michael Young was slotted into the starting lineup and led the first-year players with nine points and eight rebounds.
"I've been saying we've got good freshman," Dixon said, "and I think everybody knows that they are."
It didn't take long for Dixon to start looking ahead, but only as far as tonight and the Pitt-Notre Dame prime-time matchup at Heinz Field.
"Enjoy the football game tomorrow night," Dixon said with a grin.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt. First Published November 8, 2013 9:12 PM