Ron Cook: Healthy Zanna, Patterson make Pitt stronger
March 13, 2014 11:35 PM
Pitt’s Talib Zanna shoots over Wake Forest’s Tyler Cavanaugh in the first half Thursday in Greensboro, N.C.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- By blowing out Wake Forest Thursday in its first ACC tournament game, Pitt put a decisive end to two fallacies that have dogged it in the second half of this college basketball season. It proved it is an NCAA tournament team and officially will accept its bid Sunday night, regardless of how it does today against North Carolina in an ACC quarterfinal. It also proved it is more than just the Lamar Patterson Show.
About that NCAA slot?
"We've obviously done a lot of good things," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said after the 84-55 licking of Wake Forest. "Twenty-four wins and now a 12th win in the ACC ... I think that goes without saying."
And the end of the Patterson and Four Nobodies storyline?
"I have to take the load off him sometimes," Pitt senior Talib Zanna said. "We can't have one guy do it all. It takes a team to win."
Don't get the wrong idea. Patterson still came up large Thursday, leading Pitt with 24 points and owning the second half. At one point, he scored nine consecutive Pitt points, the biggest part of a 17-1 run that gave Pitt a 60-31 lead with 12½ minutes left. This might have been Pitt's best offensive performance this season. It scored on 9 of 11 possessions early in the second half to run away with the win. The 84 points were its most in regulation since it scored 91 against Youngstown State in mid-December.
But the game felt as if it were over by halftime when Pitt led, 39-25. Give Zanna most of the credit. His first-half stats line screamed that he came ready to play: 7-of-9 shooting, 15 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and 1 blocked shot.
"We're hungry. We came out hungry," Zanna said after having Wake Forest for a late lunch. "A lot of people were kind of doubting us and saying we were on the [NCAA] bubble. That motivated us. Everyone stepped up."
Zanna scored the game's first basket with a put-back. He stole the ball from Wake Forest's Devin Thomas and got it to teammate Cameron Wright for a fastbreak layup. He tipped in a Patterson miss. He blocked a shot by Wake Forest's Codi Miller-McIntyre. He had another steal, leading to a layup by Josh Newkirk. He had a third steal, leading to a Patterson layup. He assisted on another basket by Wright.
Just like that, Pitt led, 17-6.
Not a bad seven minutes by Zanna to start the game.
"We want to get him going," Patterson said. "It's our game plan every game. He's a big factor in what we want to do every game, defensively and offensively. When you see him going, it just gets the ball rolling. Everyone was clicking."
Zanna has been impressive in five consecutive games, making 29 of 43 shots and averaging 15.2 points and 9.6 rebounds. Dixon said the explanation is easy. "He's healthy."
A midseason ankle injury limited Zanna's effectiveness at the same time Patterson was troubled by a bad thumb. Not surprisingly -- as least not to Dixon -- Pitt lost five of seven games at one point, a slide that put its NCAA tournament bid in considerable jeopardy.
"Look at their numbers in some of those games," Dixon said. "The numbers are almost incomprehensible to me. It's like there were other guys out there ...
"Other teams would have sat them and let them get healthy. They would have had an excuse if they lost. But our guys wanted to keep playing. They're our two best players. So they played. They battled their way through it.
"Now, they're healthy."
Dixon said Pitt had its three best practices of the season this week -- "by far" -- because Patterson and Zanna were able to work.
"That's why I like the way we're playing," Dixon said. "I think we're playing our best basketball."
Pitt needs Zanna to come up big again today against North Carolina. He wasn't healthy in Pitt's 75-71 loss Feb. 15 at North Carolina and his stat line showed it: 2-of-11 shooting, 5 points, 8 rebounds. Pitt struggled all game with foul trouble and shot just 40.6 percent.
"We're mad about that game," Zanna said. "Everybody's mind wasn't there. We weren't focused. I know I missed a lot of easy shots. I have to be more aggressive on the glass. All of us have to be more physical. There were times we ran our offense and they pushed us out all the way to halfcourt. We can't allow that to happen this time."
Dixon said Pitt is a better team now. A big reason is Zanna is a better player, a healthier player. He proved that again late in the first half against Wake Forest. He grabbed a defensive rebound and ran the floor, taking a pass from Newkirk for an easy dunk. On Pitt's next possession, he took a pass from Patterson and scored a lean-in layup despite being fouled. He made the subsequent foul shot and has made 18 of his past 21 free throws.
"He had games where he missed layups because he had no explosion," Dixon said of Zanna. "Now, he's jumping better and finishing better."
Patterson couldn't help but notice. He liked what he saw, not just of Zanna, but from all of his teammates. How did Zanna describe them? That's right, hungry.
"Everyone is healthy and ready to go," Patterson said. " We're dialed in."
That's a good thing with North Carolina up next. It won 12 consecutive ACC games before losing Saturday night at Duke. Pitt is going to need everyone to win.
Especially Patterson and Zanna.
That's no fallacy.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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