Defense is cure for ailing Panthers

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Pitt played two games on the road against ranked opponents last week. They played without leading scorer Ashton Gibbs and they averaged 64 points in those contests.

Sounds like a recipe for a loss or two, but the resilient Panthers overcame circumstances by relying on an old standby: defense.

Pitt's defense has sometimes been a source of concern this season, but the Panthers have been depending on it a lot more while Gibbs is out of the lineup with a knee injury.

The Panthers held Villanova to a season-low 54 points Saturday night, forcing a 36 percent shooting effort, the Wildcats' third-worst shooting percentage of the season.


Next
  • Game: No. 4 Pitt (23-2, 11-1 Big East) vs. South Florida (8-18, 2-11).
  • When: 7 p.m. Wednesday.
  • Where: Petersen Events Center.
  • TV: ESPN3.com.

That performance came on the heels of a strong defensive effort at West Virginia, when the Panthers clamped down and won, 71-66.

"Our perimeter defense has gotten better," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said Monday.

"Defensively, I've felt good about what we've done. We played against two very good teams on the road, so you know you have to win with defense, and that's what we did."

Since allowing Notre Dame to shoot 48 percent from the field -- the highest shooting percentage by a Big East Conference opponent this season -- in a home loss Jan. 24 at Petersen Events Center, three of Pitt's past four opponents have shot less than 40 percent from the field.

The Panthers held Rutgers to 38.6 percent shooting and Cincinnati to 33.3. Only West Virginia shot higher than 40 percent, making 44.2 percent of its shots.

Rutgers, Cincinnati and West Virginia never will be mistaken for good offensive teams, but Villanova is one of the better offensive teams in the league.

The Wildcats, who average 74.7 points per game, were slowed by Pitt's relentless defensive effort.

"That's something we've really stressed," senior center Gary McGhee said. "We wanted to keep our field-goal percentage defense down. We were giving guys too many layups.

"In the Notre Dame game I think we gave up maybe seven or eight layups. That's too many. We'd like to be under five. We wanted to stop giving up easy shots and have a hand in their face and make them take contested shots."

Such was the case against Villanova when senior Brad Wanamaker was the lone man back on a three-on-one fastbreak. Villanova's Dominic Cheek attacked the rim for a layup attempt, but Wanamaker leaped and blocked the shot. Pitt grabbed the rebound after another Villanova miss.

Those types of plays have a way of inspiring a team to play good defense.

It hasn't always been that way this season for the Panthers.

Seven of the 13 non-conference opponents shot 40 percent or better. Tennessee shot 56.3 percent, Rider 50 percent and Maryland 48.2 percent.

In Big East play, only Notre Dame has shot better than 45 percent from the field.

That improvement has been evident in the conference's defensive statistics. The Panthers are fourth in the league in field-goal percentage defense (40.0) and second in scoring defense (61.6 ppg).

"We really took it personal after those games to get better," senior forward Gilbert Brown said. "It's been a great collective effort as a team to be a better defensive team and it's really showed the last couple of games. I think we take it personal in one-on-one matchups and not necessarily having to rely on help defense. It's really helped us and we've benefited as a team on the whole."

The Panthers have been near the top of NCAA Division I's offensive rankings all season. They continue to be one of the most efficient offensive teams and are 31st in Division I in scoring with 76.6 points per game.

Slowly but surely, the defense has been rounding into form, and it is coming at a most opportune time with the Big East and NCAA tournaments on the horizon.

"I think with the firepower we have on offense, sometimes people tend to overlook what we have as a defensive team," Brown said.

"Over the last couple of games we've really put it down and showed what we're capable of defensively. Villanova was really big. With Ashton out, it was very key for us because we weren't hitting shots that we normally hit. We have to hold teams under 40 percent. We are capable of doing it, and the team believes in it."

NOTE -- Gibbs, who missed the past two games with a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee, went through a light workout with his teammates Monday, but his status for game Wednesday against South Florida at Petersen Events Center is questionable. Gibbs will be evaluated by doctors today after he goes through another practice. "Ashton practiced and felt good, but it wasn't with contact," Dixon said "They'll evaluate it [today] and we'll see where he is at that point. We'll see if there is any residual effect from going a little harder. It's gone well. It's gone as anticipated. He feels good."


Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.


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