By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Its offense still sputtering along, the Pitt men’s basketball team returned to an old standby to secure a victory.
Pittsburgh forced 15 turnovers and held St. John’s to 32.8-percent shooting from the field during a 63-53 Big East win Thursday night at the Petersen Events Center.
The Panthers improved to 16-4 overall and 6-2 in the Conference, while St. John’s dropped to 12-8 and 2-6. Pitt travels to South Florida Sunday at 1 p.m.
“We were more intense and more on the same page out there,” Pitt junior forward Bradley Wanamaker said. “We were talking more, more than we did in the last couple games, and they shot a bad percentage. … Our last two games, our offense hasn’t been real good.
“And we got away from what we’ve been doing to win (games). So, (against St. John’s), we got back in that flow again of playing good defense. And, hopefully, it will carry over into the next game.”
After a lackluster first half, during which it trailed St. John’s 28-24, Pitt steadily got going defensively. And the Panthers did it without senior guard Jermaine Dixon, their best defender, who turned his right ankle 3:16 into the second half and did not return. He broke a bone in that foot twice before the season started and missed the first eight games, but his injury is not believed to be serious.
“Obviously, we missed him, but I thought Chase Adams and Travon Woodall did a nice job for us, especially on the defensive end,” Coach Dixon said. “Travon’s a key for us. We have to play him more, so he’s got to continue to improve and not be a freshman. He doesn’t need to score a lot. But he needs to give us good defense and run some offense and give us some minutes.
“Today, he did a better job of that. … So, Ithink we defended them well and frustrated some of their drivers. We made an adjustment at halftime (guarding ball screens), and that really helped. We outscored them by 14 in the second half (39-25). Obviously, we didn’t shoot it well. That’s been 2-3 games in a row now, but we won on defense. And that’s what we wanted to do.”
Wanamaker led Pitt with 16 points and six assists to go with four rebounds, two steals and just one turnover in 36 minutes. He was 5-for-10 from the field, but 2-for-3 from long range and 4-for-4 from the free-throw line, as the Panthers made 21 of 24 overall from the stripe.
Jermaine Dixon wasn’t playing too badly when he was injured, but sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs had another poor shooting night (5-for-13 overall and 0-for-4 from 3-point range). He scored 14 points, thanks to a 4-for-4 effort at the line, and had three assists and three rebounds in 37 minutes.
The biggest surprise was junior center Gary McGhee, who tallied 10 points (5 of 7), four rebounds, three blocked shots and just two turnovers in 28 minutes. That was big for the Panthers, because freshman Dante Taylor committed two fouls and a turnover in 10 minutes as McGhee’s sub. And at the four spot, starter Nasir Robinson and backup Gilbert Brown combined to make two shots in 13 attempts.
“We got some pretty good looks out of certain sets, and Gary got some isolations there,” Dixon said. “Chase got him the ball on the baseline, and he went up strong with one. That’s what we want him to do. Finish strong and finish high and use his athleticism and height. So, hopefully, this game was a big confidence-booster for him.”
McGhee scored on a couple jams and two nice jump-hooks that he appears to have perfected lately.
“Yeah, I’ve been working on that,” McGhee said. “Early mornings, I come in and work on my jump-hooks, and I take pride in working on my post moves. … It felt good for me to get more involved on offense (with) some easy jump-hooks and dunks.
“And when I can do that it helps our guards get open on the outside. (But) on the boards, they got most of the long rebounds and loose balls out there. So, we need to get more of those.”
The most negative aspect of this win, other than the shooting that could be an issue all season, was that Pitt was out-rebounded for just the second time this season. St. John’s pulled down 41 rebounds, including 19 offensive, while Pitt had just 31 overall and eight on the offensive glass.
But in the second half, Pitt didn’t need many rebounds, as it shot 52.2 percent from the field. McGhee scored three times in about a three-minute span, and Wanamaker had a terrific slam off a baseline drive to give the Panthers a seven point lead. St. John’s stayed close, but Pitt pulled away at the end with solid free-throw shooting.
“I think we finally got it,” Wanamaker said. “We finally knew what we needed to do to win the game. We needed to get some stops and get some rebounds, and we had a good stretch doing that where we got the lead. And that won the game for us.
“For me, I just saw an open lane and took advantage of it with a dunk. Gary did a good job moving his guy out of the way and deserved an assist on that, but I just tried to make a statement that we wanted to win this game. And we picked it up after that.”
And after two straight losses, it was just good for the Panthers to get a win.