Cook: Step in right direction for Pitt

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It was just one game, one of 18 in the long, grueling Big East Conference schedule. But for Pitt, the game Thursday night against West Virginia at the Petersen Events Center was a little more important than most. Pitt was coming off a difficult 60-59 loss at St. John's -- just its second loss in the conference -- and, before that, a less-than-impressive home win against South Florida.

You know what they say about adversity. It doesn't build character, it reveals it. Pitt needed to bounce back in a big way for a number of reasons. Its likelihood of winning a third Big East outright regular-season championship and first since the 2003-04 season. Its chances of getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons. Its state of mind.

Mostly, its state of mind.

"When you lose consecutive games, it can turn into a downward spiral that's hard to get out of sometimes," Pitt senior forward Gilbert Brown said.

No worries there.

Pitt did bounce back.

Its 71-58 win revealed much that is good about this Pitt team.

It left Pitt with a 13-2 conference record, still two games better than Notre Dame, its only serious pursuer. Every other Big East team has at least five losses.

"I'll tell you what I find to be kind of a joke," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "Every once in awhile, you turn SportsCenter on and listen to the gurus talking about Pitt being a two seed. How can [they] be a two seed? You run away with this league, which I don't think anybody disagrees is the best league in the country, and play the people they've played non-conference, how are they not a No. 1?"

Pitt strengthened its case with this latest performance, especially in the second half when it shot 65.2 percent (15 of 23), held West Virginia to 26.1 percent shooting (6 of 23) and outscored the Mountaineers, 41-27.

Pitt fixed a lot of its problems from the St. John's game. Obviously, it did a better job scoring. It outrebounded West Virginia, 33-30, after getting only a push on the boards against St. John's. It committed eight turnovers after having 16 against St. John's and blowing a late five-point lead.

"There wasn't panic. There wasn't any 'we're horrible' talk," Dixon said. "The first thing we did was give the players two days off -- Sunday and Monday. Your initial thought might be to pound 'em and run 'em into the ground. But we were banged up. We did some good things at St. John's. We just emphasized two things that we had to do better -- rebounding and turnovers."

It was encouraging that Pitt was more than guard Ashton Gibbs, who made just 1 of 5 3-point shots and finished with nine points after getting 26 against St. John's. He was the only player to score in double figures against St. John's, but four Panthers did it against West Virginia, led by Nasir Robinson with 15.

Brown, who had been in a 1-for-9 3-point shooting slump in the past four games, made all three of his 3s in the first half and finished with 11 points. Reserve Lamar Patterson had a career-high 11 after playing just 4 minutes and not talking a shot against St. John's. That balance was nice to see. So were Pitt's 23 assists on its 27 baskets. Brad Wanamaker, Travon Woodall and Patterson combined for 19 assists and two turnovers.

"We like to pass the ball," Wanamaker said. "When we get the other guys involved, our team is the best it can be."

It also was significant that Pitt ended up scoring in the 70s again. It had done that just twice in the previous seven games. It's going to have to make its shots to go far at tournament time.

If there was a big negative, it was that Pitt started slowly again, falling behind, 7-0. That has become a frightening habit. A slow start against a better team could doom Pitt in a one-and-done tournament. Correcting that problem should be a priority for Dixon before the next game Sunday at Louisville.

That Pitt had enough to beat West Virginia wasn't surprising. It beat the Mountaineers, 71-66, Feb. 7 in Morgantown, with the same sort of dominant second half. Pitt hardly loses at home; it's 148-12 with six consecutive wins against West Virginia. Pitt also hardly loses two games in a row; it has happened just nine times in Dixon's eight seasons as coach. Pitt is 38-11 after losses under Dixon.

"If you're doing what we're doing and what we want to do, you can't afford [to lose two in a row]," Dixon said.

That's why it was so important that Pitt play well. That state-of-mind thing, remember? Pitt has just three regular-season games left before the Big East tournament -- at Louisville and South Florida and home against Villanova. Now is not the time of season to stumble. Now is the time for a team to start playing its best basketball.

This win was a nice step in that direction for Pitt.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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