Panthers showing some fight


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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Pitt coach Jamie Dixon knew his team won Monday night, knew it beat West Virginia, 72-66, at the WVU Coliseum for its third consecutive win. That was all he needed for a wonderful bus ride home up Interstate 79. But West Virginia coach Bob Huggins gave Dixon more. It happened during their postgame handshake and embrace.

"I told Jamie they're tougher than us," Huggins recalled. "They out-toughed us."

What sweet words they were to Dixon.

It's funny; that's the exact sentiment the Pitt players had outside of their happy locker room.

"We're a bunch of fighters on this team, a bunch of winners at that," guard Tray Woodall said. "We all come from winning programs. That's why coach Dixon recruited us. We're not used to losing and we don't like it. We're always going to keep fighting."

A week ago, that would have seemed like so much hot air. But Pitt has picked itself up after an 0-7 start in Big East Conference play to beat, in order, a bad Providence team, a very good Georgetown team that was ranked No. 9 and a middling West Virginia team that usually is very tough in its own building.

"The way we look at it," Woodall said, "we're 3-0."

The presumptuous West Virginia students, who chanted "N-I-T" at the Pitt players before the game, still might be right. Pitt, at 14-9 overall and 3-7 in the league, is a long way from an 11th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. But it at least has made the rest of the season interesting. If it can beat a Villanova team that's having a bad year at home Sunday afternoon to make it four in a row ...

"Anything is possible," guard Ashton Gibbs said. "These three wins will mean nothing if we don't build on it. But we will. I'm sure we will. The best is yet to come for this team."

You know the obvious follow-up question, right?

Why is the best yet to come?

"Because we haven't played our best basketball yet," Gibbs said. "Not everyone is playing great yet. I don't think I played great tonight. I had some defensive mishaps. I had some rebounding mishaps. I know I'm going to play better. Once every guy on the team starts playing to his ability, we're going to win a lot more games."

Woodall has been very good since his return to the lineup from an abdominal injury. He has led the Pitt resurgence. He made 4 of 4 3-point shots and had 17 points and nine assists in the 86-74 win Wednesday night against Providence. He shot just 1 for 7 but kept the offense functioning with 10 assists in the 72-60 Saturday win against Georgetown. Monday night, he made 8 of 12 shots and had 24 points to make his five turnovers more tolerable.

"I know what Tray means to this team," Gibbs said. "I knew when he came back, we would be a team to reckon with."

A big plus for Pitt on this chilly winter night was a strong game from center Dante Taylor. He has been widely criticized all season for not providing much of an inside game, but he gave Pitt eight points and seven rebounds in 24 solid minutes.

"That's something we've all been waiting for," Gibbs said.

Huggins was too frustrated with his players to notice what Woodall, Taylor, Gibbs or any of the Pitt players did.

"We don't defend," he said. "We've given up more layups than any team I've ever coached."

It's no wonder Huggins was in sour mood. The loss was just West Virginia's third in its past 43 games against unranked opponents at the WVU Coliseum. It also was the third in a row for a West Virginia team that's 15-8 overall and 5-5 in the Big East and could be hearing "N-I-T" chants soon if it doesn't start stacking a few wins.

For the second consecutive game, West Virginia was on the wrong end of a bad call. Saturday, an obvious goaltending call was missed late against Syracuse in a 63-61 loss. Monday night, Huggins was called for a technical foul early in the second half when he said he did nothing more than yell at one of his players, Truck Bryant, for not rotating on defense.

"I'm getting tired of not talking about [the officiating]," Huggins growled, calling the technical "totally ridiculous."

The call didn't help West Virginia, but that's not what beat it.

Pitt beat West Virginia.

Let's give credit where it is due.

"Obviously, I'm very happy for our guys and what they have done and how they have battled and what they have become," Dixon said.

"The best is yet to come for this team."

Woodall expounded on that thought.

"We're going to keep fighting," he said. "I don't know where we're going to be at the end of the season, but we're going to leave everything on the floor in every game."

That's what a good team does. That's what a tough team does.


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. First Published January 31, 2012 5:00 AM


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