Pitt beats Penn, 78-58, as Birch shines in first start
Pitt's Talib Zanna elevates for a shot Friday against Penn's Marin Kukoc at The Palestra in Philadelphia.
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PHILADELPHIA -- Pitt freshman Khem Birch came to Pitt with plenty of fanfare. He was coach Jamie Dixon's second McDonald's All-American and has athletic skills that few Pitt post players of the past have possessed.
Birch did not perform well in his first three games at power forward, but since switching to center he is looking like the dominant player many believed he would be.
Making the first start of his college career in place of injured starter Dante Taylor, Birch recorded his first career double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds to lead No. 17 Pitt past Penn, 78-58, at The Palestra.
Dixon said Taylor sat out because of migraine headaches. He will be evaluated today and his status for the game Sunday against Robert Morris is not known. Taylor was one of two starters who did not suit up for the Panthers (4-1).
Lamar Patterson sat on the bench because Dixon suspended him for two games because of a violation of team rules. Patterson, a Lancaster native who started the first four games, was told Thursday that he would not be playing.
"He's not doing what he's supposed to do," Dixon said. "There's a right way to do things."
It is the second time in as many seasons that Patterson was suspended. Last season, Dixon sat him for one game against West Virginia, a game the Panthers won on the road.
The Panthers did not miss a beat without Patterson then or Friday night. Sophomore J.J. Moore stepped in and played well, scoring 12 points and grabbing six rebounds in a career-high 31 minutes.
"He played well," Dixon said. "He played within himself. He knocked down open shots. With the way our guards pass and move the ball, that's what he has to do."
Senior guard Ashton Gibbs scored 13 of his 16 points in the second half when the Panthers pulled away from the Quakers, who trailed by only six at halftime. Senior forward Nasir Robinson, who is from nearby Chester, Pa., added 14 points.
But the story of the game was Birch, who managed just four points and six rebounds in the first three games. That was when he was serving as the backup to Robinson. Since moving to center, he has scored 19 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in two games.
"I was really nervous," Birch said. "I missed my first layup. But as the game went on I got more into the flow."
Birch was a beast on the offensive boards. He grabbed four rebounds after misses and converted three of those into baskets. He also was a presence on the defensive end with three blocks. One of his blocks in the first half led to a fastbreak layup for Tray Woodall and extended Pitt's lead to 10.
"He's getting more and more comfortable," Dixon said. "He's got a good feel. That's something you can't teach."
It was Birch and Moore who led the Panthers in the first half when Gibbs was struggling with his shot. Gibbs was 1 for 7 from the field in the first half and Woodall, the team's second-leading scorer, only managed one basket.
NOTES -- Former Pitt running backs LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis, who currently play for the Philadelphia Eagles, watched the game from the front row near Pitt's bench. ... Woodall finished with seven points and was held below double figures for the first time this season. ... Gibbs was 4 for 6 from 3-point range. ... Talib Zanna came off the bench to score eight points, but he left the game midway through the second half with a knee injury. Dixon said afterward that it did not appear to be serious. Zanna injured his right knee while attempting to help Robinson off the floor. He slipped on a wet spot and stayed on the floor for a few minutes before walking to the bench on his own. He did not return.
First Published November 26, 2011 12:00 am