Pitt Basketball: NEC's Wagner stuns Panthers
Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon argues a call as his team takes on Wagner in the first half Friday night.
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Pitt lost one game against a non-conference opponent in the first nine seasons in Petersen Events Center. Now, in the span of five weeks, the Panthers have dropped two games outside of their league on their home court.
Wagner pulled off a 59-54 upset Friday night before a nationally televised audience on ESPNU and spoiled the holiday for the Panthers, who have to lick their wounds over the next few days before opening Big East Conference play Tuesday at Notre Dame.
Pitt had won 91 of 92 non-conference games at Petersen Events Center before this season, but the Panthers lost Nov. 16 to Long Beach State. That was the first loss to a non-Big East team at home since 2005.
The Panthers had rebounded well from that game and won nine in a row before meeting Wagner, which was coming off a home loss to Lehigh.
Junior center Dante Taylor said there was a common denominator to the losses to Long Beach State and Wagner.
"Both teams played harder than us and beat us outright," Taylor said. "We didn't have a lot of intensity and we didn't respond well."
Wagner is not a program that is known for upsets. The victory Friday night was the first against a ranked opponent since 1978.
The loss was noteworthy for another reason. Pitt had won all 70 of its previous games against teams from the Northeast Conference, including its first two this season against Robert Morris and Saint Francis.
Wagner became the first team from the NEC to beat a team from the Big East since 2006. The conference was 0-14 against Big East teams this season.
The Seahawks did it by pressuring Pitt into 18 turnovers and forcing the Panthers out of rhythm on offense. Pitt senior Ashton Gibbs finished with 14 points, but he was 5 for 16 from the field and was shut out in the first half, when the Seahawks took command of the game.
Wagner coach Dan Hurley wanted to make Gibbs, who is playing the point because Tray Woodall remains out of the lineup with an injury, work to get the ball up the floor. The game plan worked to perfection. Gibbs committed four turnovers and never got himself or his teammates into any kind of flow offensively.
"They were laboring getting the ball up the court," Hurley said. "Even in possessions when we weren't really rattling them, we wanted them to have a short clock. They were getting it across at 27 and 26 [seconds], and they weren't initiating offense until 24, getting into their scoring action. Then we had to play the 3-point line and in defense for only short clocks. Our guys did a great job of executing that."
Pitt (11-2) shot 39 percent (19 for 48) from the field and only 13.3 percent (2 for 13) from 3-point range. Gibbs was the only player to reach double figures.
It was Pitt's lowest point total of the season, and the ineffective offense was hard to watch for coach Jamie Dixon, who had been buoyed by his team's play in recent weeks.
"I really can't point to anything we did well," Dixon said. "It was disappointing in every way. We didn't shoot well, didn't shoot it well from 3, didn't make free throws. Then you throw in a high turnover game ... we definitely took a step backward. It was hard to watch for me."
Latif Rivers led Wagner (8-3) with 18 points. Kenneth Ortiz added 12 and Tyler Murray 10 for the Seahawks. It was Ortiz who frustrated Gibbs all game. Not only did he shut down Gibbs in the first half, but he scored on him at will, making all five of his shots in the first 20 minutes to help his team take a 29-25 lead into the locker room at halftime.
"My focus was to get him out of his rhythm early," Ortiz said. "I know Ashton. We're from the same part of New Jersey. I know his game. It worked out on our favor."
The burden of running the offense in Woodall's absence appears to be wearing on Gibbs, who was 1 for 7 from 3-point range. He is 13 for 44 from behind the 3-point line since Woodall exited the lineup.
Despite the poor offensive performance, Pitt still had a chance to avoid the upset. Gibbs got hot for a short while late in the second half and made three consecutive baskets to cut Wagner's lead to 48-44 with 6:13 remaining.
The Panthers had three more opportunities to cut into that lead but committed turnovers on each of those possessions.
"We didn't make any plays," Dixon said. "We rushed some plays. We haven't been down a lot. In the two games we have been we had opportunities to come back and it seemed like we were impatient. ... It's something we'll have to get better at and recognize and improve with time. But there isn't much time. It's January soon and we're starting in the league [Tuesday]. There wasn't a lot of good to come out of this. We have to put this one behind us and get ready and recognize we have to execute better."
First Published December 24, 2011 12:00 am