Last Saturday, the Pitt men's basketball team suffered its worst loss in Petersen Events Center history when the Panthers fell to Rutgers after a lackluster second half.
On Wednesday night at home against Villanova, Pitt avoided a similar situation by putting in an energy-filled effort to take a 69-57 victory. The Panthers improve to 17-4 overall and 5-3 in the Big East conference with the win.
For Pitt, the game bore an eerily similarity to Saturday's loss, when the Scarlet Knights used a 12-2 second-half run to pull away for a victory. On Wednesday night, Villanova posted a 9-0 scoring run with in the second half to pull ahead 38-37 with 13:38 remaining.
But instead of falling apart on defense and on the boards, as they had done four days earlier, the Panthers responded against the Wildcats, answering Villanova's short run with a 22-3 scoring advantage of their own, covering eight and a half minutes of game time and leaving the visitors down 59-41 with 4:34 left in the game.
"We all just had to step up," said junior forward Tyrell Biggs, who finished with 14 points and 4 rebounds. "Coach got us focused, we knew what we had to do, and we executed."
"Staying together and staying with what we do," senior Keith Benjamin said of the Panthers' big second-half run. "Basketball is always going to be runs; we knew they were going to put a run together and make a push on us in the second half and open it up, we just didn't want to fall into what we did the other day. So we just stayed together, we stayed tough, we stayed with the rebounds, we stayed with the defense, shots started falling, they started getting more impatient on defense, and we started picking them apart."
Benjamin's role in the run and the game was crucial for Pitt. After the Panthers had scored seven unanswered points in the second half, senior point guard Ronald Ramon picked up his fourth personal foul, leaving Benjamin to run the point. The senior responded and finished the game with a team-high 7 assists and only 2 turnovers.
"It was real tight right there and the guys started to look to me with Ronald in foul trouble," the Benjamin said. "You have to just elevate your game. I knew I had to run the team from that point on, so it was time to just grind it out."
And grind it out the Panthers did, with 22 second-half free throw attempts (15 conversions) and a 52% field goal percentage in the final 20 minutes.
"We played a hungry team tonight," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said after the game. "They did a great job. Their effort just kind of wore us down. We hung for awhile, but they hit some big shots, and that's what good teams do."
Pitt may have made some big shots, but after the game the Panthers maintained that the biggest difference between their winning performance on Wednesday night and the losing bid last Saturday did not come from shooting.
"Teams have been doing a good job scouting us and getting into us on our plays and our sets, so shots are a little bit tougher now," Benjamin said. "The last game we didn't have that defense, but it was there tonight and we had that toughness and that's why we got through it tonight."
"We knew we had to rebound, because we didn't do it very well last time," said freshman center DeJuan Blair, who recorded his eighth career double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds. "We did an excellent job in the beginning and we finished well. That was a big advantage for us. If we out-rebound a team and play defense, the offense is going to be there. We'll win most of our games if those two things are there."
The Panthers out-rebounded the Wildcats 43-32 in the game.
Pitt junior Sam Young scored a team-high 15 points and also recorded a career-best 4 blocks. Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds set the game-high of 26 points.
The Panthers will now take two days off before heading back onto the court for a road contest at Connecticut Saturday afternoon.
Chris Peak can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org