Northwood (Fla.) University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania didn't provide much resistance for No. 5 Pitt in the preseason. Rhode Island, the Panthers' first opponent of the 2010-11 regular season was a different story.
The Rams were tough, physical and energetic, and their combination of size and athleticism was enough to give the Panthers fits throughout the first half on Monday night at the Petersen Events Center.
But Pitt proved to be too much for a short-handed and foul-plagued Rhode Island squad, as the Panthers beat the Rams 85-73.
"Obviously we have a lot of respect for Rhode Island, and there's a reason why teams don't want to play them and especially don't want to play them on November 8th," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said after the game. "It's a good win, a quality win; they'll be in the top-40 RPI and there's a reason why teams don't want to play them. But there's also a reason why we're top-three in the RPI over the last nine or ten years: because we play teams like this. We're the ones that would agree to play them and we got the game we thought we'd get out of it."
Rhode Island finished last season at No. 38 in the RPI after losing to North Carolina by one point in the NIT semifinals. And while the Rams came to Pittsburgh without their top scorer from a year ago, senior forward Delroy James (20 points) and sophomore guard Akeem Richardson (16 points) did their parts to help the visitors' cause.
The Rams hit 14 three-pointers - more than half of their 24 made field goals - in the loss and forced 14 Pitt turnovers while holding the Panthers to a paltry 18.8% (3-of-16) three-point shooting rate.Rhode Island led by as many as eight points late in the first half before Pitt rattled off nine unanswered points in the final 90 seconds of the half. The run was propelled by two layups from Brad Wanamaker, an and-one from Ashton Gibbs, and a buzzer-beating dunk by Lamar Patterson, all of which overcame a first half in which Pitt trailed Rhode Island for the better part of 20 minutes.
"Basketball's about momentum, and at that point we had momentum, especially going into halftime," Gibbs said. "We just carried it over into the second half."
Dixon had a different theory about why the game stayed close in the first half.
"We charted that we missed nine layups in the first half," he said. "Probably the biggest difference was that we made layups from that point on and in the second half."
Naturally, Wanamaker and Gibbs provided Pitt's primary scoring push, with Wanamaker scoring a game-high - and 24 points and Gibbs putting up 22. Wanamaker also led Pitt with eight assists, while redshirt senior forward Gilbert Brown scored nine of his 10 points in the second half.
"It was a tough game," Gibbs said. "We know they're a good team and they came out strong and hungry, and we didn't come out as strong as we wanted to. It really showed, especially in the beginning. Toward the end of the game we knocked down some big shots and got the win.
"To play against a team like this, especially in the non-conference, is a big help for us. Now we just have to keep playing."
Monday night's game was the first college basketball game of the season and the opening round of the 2K Sports Classic Benefiting Coaches Vs. Cancer. Pitt (1-0) will be back on the court at the Petersen Events Center Wednesday night when the Panthers host Illinois-Chicago at 7 p.m.
Notes: Redshirt freshman Talib Zanna made his first career start and nearly posted a double-double, with nine points and 11 rebounds; 4 of his 11 rebounds came on the offensive end…Brown made his first start in three years…Pitt nearly doubled Rhode Island in free-throw attempts: the Panthers had 30 free throws, URI had 16…Wanamaker and Gibbs hit more than half (15-of-29) of Pitt's made field goals…Freshmen J.J. Moore, Cameron Wright, and Isaiah Epps did not play…Sophomore J.J. Richardson logged four minutes in the first half after Gary McGhee and Dante Taylor each had to sit with two fouls.