Ron Cook: Talib Zanna's show takes backseat only to DeJuan Blair



GREENSBORO, N.C.

DeJuan Blair went for 22 points and 23 rebounds against Connecticut 7-foot-3 giant Hasheem Thabeet in a win in Hartford in 2009, Pitt's first win against a No. 1 team. It was the best game I've seen a Pitt big man play.

Talib Zanna climbed to No. 2 Friday.

Saying he still was "hungry" after feasting on Wake Forest Thursday in Pitt's first ACC tournament game, Zanna devoured North Carolina in an 80-75 win in front of a pro-Carolina crowd at Greensboro Coliseum. His 19 points and 21 rebounds -- tied for third most in ACC tournament history -- put surging Pitt into the semifinals today against Virginia. His performance also put him on the level -- at least for a single game -- with Pitt icons with names such as Hennon, Knight, Smith, Lane and, of course, Blair.

Blair did it against better competition. The Memphis Grizzlies made Thabeet the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft a few months later. That Connecticut team went to the Final Four.

But Zanna's work against one of the top rebounding teams in the ACC was nothing short of amazing. That he did it in North Carolina's backyard -- "Our place," Carolina coach Roy Willliams called the Coliseum -- made it even more satisfying for all in the Pitt locker room. "Talib was phenomenal," teammate Michael Young said.

OK, phenomenal works.

"I might have had four rebounds today," Young said. "He made 21 look easy."

Zanna had 10 offensive rebounds, just one fewer than the North Carolina team. He turned five into baskets, at one point in the second half scoring six consecutive Pitt points to give the Panthers a 45-31 lead.

"The ball kept coming to me," Zanna said. "But I'm not going to say I was lucky. I worked for it. I love crashing the glass."

Pitt stretched the lead to 61-41 with little more than seven minutes left before making things unnecessarily tough on itself by wilting under North Carolina's defensive pressure and missing 10 free throws in the final four minutes.

"We'll make them tomorrow," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "I'm very sure about that."

Nothing was going to ruin this particular day for Dixon. Pitt outrebounded North Carolina, 43-35, pleasing him to no end. "We've got to be great at that," he said. "We've got to win that battle. If you don't do what you do, you're going to come up short."

It's hard to believe that Pitt was outrebounded, 35-23, and had just two offensive rebounds in a home loss March 3 to North Carolina State. Since then, it has outrebounded Clemson by seven, Wake Forest by eight and North Carolina by eight. It won all three games.

"We got back to the locker room after that [North Carolina State] game, and Dixon was [ticked]," Zanna said. "He said we had to set the tone. He said we had to keep attacking the glass."

Zanna got the message. He had 10 rebounds against Clemson in an 83-78 overtime win, 9 against Wake Forest in an 84-55 blowout and the 21 against North Carolina, that 21 prompting Dixon to gush, "He was relentless on the glass ... he was terrific in every way. But he's been terrific all year except during that one stretch when he had the bad ankle and was playing on one foot."

Zanna's 17 points against Wake Forest and the 19 Friday certainly were huge here. Dixon pointed to the three assists he had in each game. "We've been emphasizing to him that his passing will open things up for him offensively and help him score more."

Dixon said he also has preached to Zanna and star Lamar Patterson -- his two seniors -- that they need to be more vocal and better leaders on the floor, especially on the defensive end.

"We want to put them out there and hold them accountable," Dixon said. "They're generally reserved, quiet kids. But even a little something coming from them means a lot to the other guys. If you say it, you've got to do it."

Wait for it ...

Here it comes ...

"They're certainly doing it for this team," Dixon said.

Another big challenge comes today against Virginia, which beat Pitt, 48-45, at the buzzer Feb. 2 at Petersen Events Center. Zanna's ankle was injured that afternoon, and he was limited to two points and three rebounds.

Young is just one of many on Pitt's side who expects much better from Zanna this time.

"Talib is a senior. What senior wants to be done?" Young asked. "I saw it in his eyes today. He came out and was ready to play. I've said it before. When he plays like that, we go from being a good team to a great team. If he plays like that, we'll win. I guarantee we'll win."

Zanna talked about this Pitt team maintaining the school's "winning tradition."

"I just want to win and make history before I graduate," he said. "Well, I've already graduated [with a degree in social sciences]. But I want to make history before I leave Pitt. This is our first ACC tournament. We all want to make history."

Dixon wouldn't allow himself to look that far ahead. He had the scouting report on Virginia even before he left the locker room.

"We don't get to enjoy this win," Dixon said. "Let the fans enjoy it. I'll be watching film when we get on the bus."

Film of Virginia, which won the ACC regular-season championship, to be sure. But also film of this very satisfying Pitt win. Pitt fans will be talking about it for a long time. They'll be talking about Zanna, who played one of the great games in Pitt history.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.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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