PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon doesn’t shy away from his team’s soft December schedule, knowing the Panthers needed time to work in four new players and figure out just who they are and where they’re going.
Talib Zanna scored six of his game-high 20 points during an early second-half run and Pitt pulled away from Delaware State for a 71-43 victory Wednesday night. The Panthers (11-1) have won seven straight games by an average of 29 points, with all of the victories coming against schools pretty far down the mid-major conference food chain.
“We’ve got to improve during this period, and we have,” Dixon said. “We’re adding plays, adding sets. We ran some plays we hadn’t run before tonight and scored baskets.”
J.J. Moore added 15 points and Steven Adams had 10 points, eight rebounds and four blocks for Pitt, which clamped down on the Hornets in the second half.
Delaware State (5-7), Pitt’s third Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference opponent in the last three weeks, kept things tight in the first half but went down quietly like Howard and Bethune-Cookman before them.
Tahj Tate led Delaware State with 19 points, but the Hornets couldn’t keep pace when the Panthers got serious after halftime.
“You can only play on emotion so long,” Delaware State coach Greg Jackson said. “I think the talent level came out in the second half. They kind of took it to another level in the second half and took us out of a lot of what we want to do.”
Panthers played without backup center Dante Taylor, who sat out with a heel contusion, but Pitt hardly missed him on a night Adams and Zanna had their way. The duo outrebounded the Hornets by themselves (17-14), and Pitt outscored Delaware State 48-18 in the paint.
Most of those baskets came on dunks and layups thanks to deft passing from guards Tray Woodall and James Robinson, who combined for 17 assists. The Panthers finished with 24 assists on 30 baskets and at one point registered assists on 10 straight buckets in the second half.
“We just wanted to penetrate and have someone else step up and drop it up to them for an easy layup,” Pitt forward Lamar Patterson said. “That’s basically what we like to do here, get the easy basket whenever possible.”
Zanna, quickly developing into one of the better post players in the Big East, led the way. He ripped off two dunks and an acrobatic layup to start the second half, part of a 15-2 burst that helped the Panthers break things open.
All seven Pitt baskets during the run came at the rim and it deflated any hopes the Hornets had of sticking around. Delaware State shot just 31 percent (6 of 19) in the second half and didn’t threaten after a Zanna lay-up off a nice feed from Robinson gave Pitt a 50-32 lead.
“I think he’s simplified his game, focused on what he’s done well and that’s always a challenge for guys and playing to his strengths,” Dixon said of Zanna. “Now I think he’s understanding. Now he’s more comfortable. He’s just gotten better.”
The Hornets, picked to finish second in the MEAC, hardly appeared intimidated in the early going. Delaware State took Penn State to overtime Saturday, leading with a minute to go in the extra period before falling 80-76.
Playing fearlessly, the Hornets kept it close during a tight first half. Launching shots from all over – at one point, Bell hit a 3-pointer with Trey Zeigler’s hand smacking him in the face and Tate banked in a 3 from the top of the key – Delaware State never let Pitt get comfortable.
The Hornets took a brief 15-14 lead before the Panthers settled in behind Zanna, who scored four points during a 13-5 burst, though Delaware State pulled within 31-27 at the break thanks to a pull-up jumper from Tate. He followed it up by stripping Adams then racing the 7-footer down the floor and flipping in an acrobatic layup at the horn.
It would be Delaware State’s last gasp. Zanna dunked on Pitt’s first possession of the second half and the Panthers were on their way.
Pitt has one more nonconference game against Kennesaw State Sunday before beginning its final season of Big East play on New Year’s Eve against No. 11 Cincinnati.
“We’ve still got things we’ve got to work on,” Patterson said. “When we come around playing better teams, I feel like our focus will be there a lot more.”