By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — It’s been said that this year’s Pitt men’s basketball team certainly is better than the sum of its parts, but a different one of those individual parts was instrumental in keeping the Panthers’ unblemished in the Big East.
Sophomore Nasir Robinson tallied a career-high 26 points and 11 rebounds to lead No. 16 Pittsburgh to a heart-stopping 82-77 overtime win against Louisville in a Big East Conference matchup Saturday afternoon at the Petersen Events Center.
“Outside of a game against Duke with Christian Laetner (a 104-103 Duke win against Kentucky in the NCAA East Regional, March 28, 1992), this was the worst loss that I’ve experienced from a team playing so well and putting itself in a position to win,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.
“I thought we executed terrific, but in overtime we did things we didn’t do the entire game. We needed to go to Samardo more, and it cost us. … It’s tough to win on the road, especially (at Pitt), but we put ourselves in a position to win. So, that’s why this is a very, very disheartening loss.”
The Panthers (15-2, 5-0) used just eight players in the 45-minute game, and four were major contributors. Robinson has played tenacious defense in his time at Pitt, but with 11-for-14 shooting from the field and 4 of 6 free throws in 42 minutes he clearly had his best game yet.
“I came out hard, and once I got my first basket I felt like I was in a groove,” Robinson said. “So, I just kept it up and kept it going and played hard.”
Junior Bradley Wanamaker continues to take his game to another level and despite a couple silly turnovers certainly could be considered Pitt’s hero against the Cardinals. The Panthers trailed by five, 68-63 with 54 seconds remaining in regulation on a Samardo Samuels basket. Samuels pounded Pitt for 25 points with 12 buckets in the paint and one free throw.
Then, it was Wanamaker time. After a Robinson free throw, Wanamaker drilled a 3-pointer with 15.6 seconds remaining in regulation to get Pitt within one, 68-67, and after a Louisville foul shot he went to the line with 1.9 seconds remaining. Wanamaker already was 9-for-10 from the line, but he calmly sank both to send the game into the extra session.
Wanamaker finished with 20 points, seven assists and two steals in 37 minutes. But the two free throws were, “by far” the most important that he’s ever made, and the clutch 3-pointer were the most critical for the Panthers.
“Nothing really was going through my mind,” Wanamaker said when asked about the free throws. “Ash just told me to take it like it was practice with nobody around. So, I took that advice, and I was able to hit two big shots.
“Also, on the three, we knew they were in a matchup-zone (defense). So, we crossed. They went with Ash, so Jermaine saw me and got me the ball. And once it left my hands, I knew it was good.”
Ashton Gibbs said Louisville played him hard and just closed up at the right time to hold him to 15 points on 4-for-12 shooting in 44 minutes. But the sharp-shooting sophomore guard was 3-for-4 from 3-point range, including the opening salvo 53 seconds into overtime, and he made all four free throws, including two with 16.4 seconds remaining in OT to force Louisville to go for a three with time running out.
“They really played hard, and they’ve got a lot of great defenders,” Gibbs said. “They came to me a lot, but they really didn’t take into consideration that we are a team. And it showed today. (But) I really didn’t get many open shots, so it felt good to hit that big three.”
Jermaine Dixon is Pitt’s top defender, but he’s played better offensively than he did against the Cardinals. He finished with nine points, six assists and three steals in 31 minutes, but was 3-for-3 in overtime after going 1-for-6 in regulation. He also had four rebounds, while junior Gary McGhee and Wanamaker added six each. And Gibbs had five.
“I think we did a better job rebounding and getting more defensive stops in the second half and overtime,” Jermaine Dixon said. “That was a big difference for us at the end. (But) I knew the game wasn’t over when we got down five. You know, with the shooters we’ve got, Ashton and Brad, we’d get some buckets.
“And we needed to get some stops, too. For my game, Coach just told me to attack more. I settled for too many jump shots, so I needed to attack and look for a dump-off inside or kick it outside to Gary or Ash if I didn’t have a shot. (But) this is the type of game we can play.
“We know we can play with any team in the country,” Dixon added, “and I still don’t think we’ve all been on the same page at the same time. When Nas plays like this and the other guys up here, Ash and Brad and Gil, you have to worry about everybody on the court. And I think that’s scary for a lot of teams.”
McGhee also had six points to go with his rebounding effort, as Pitt held a 40-26 advantage on the glass. He played 25 minutes, and freshman Dante Taylor had five points and two boards in 19 minutes. But neither was physical or athletic enough to contain Samuels in the paint, although few players will this season.
The Panthers also got no contribution from redshirt junior Gilbert Brown with a missed 3-pointer, two rebounds and three fouls in 19 minutes. Redshirt frosh point guard Travon Woodall committed three turnovers in just a few minutes in the first half and barely played after that. He did not take a shot and had just one point and two assists in eight minutes.
Pitt faces Georgetown Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Petersen Events Center.