PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Pittsburgh’s stay in the Top 25 isn’t going to last long.
The 24th-ranked Panthers ensured a quick exit from the rankings on Saturday when they parlayed a miserable first half into a second straight loss this week, dropping a 67-62 decision to Rutgers, which got 23 points from a punished Eli Carter off the bench.
“We obviously dug a hole for ourselves that we couldn’t recover,” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. “It was fun in the second half, we played harder, we played better. We made some adjustments that helped and had plenty of opportunities. It’s hard to come back from a 15-point deficit (actually 14) but we got it down there pretty quick and had an opportunity to get a stop and get rebound and make a layup and (didn’t.) I guess when you put yourself in a hole there is little margin for error.”
This marks the second straight season the Panthers (12-3, 0-2 Big East) have gotten off to a poor start in the conference. They lost their first seven league games last season in missing the NCAA tournament for the first time under Dixon. After losing to No. 14 Cincinnati on Monday, they now face the prospect of an 0-3 start with a game at No. 15 Georgetown on Tuesday.
“It’s early in the season,” said J.J. Moore, who came off the bench to lead Pittsburgh with 14 points. “We’re just going to keep attacking and keep going and rolling along. We’re going to think about our next game, Georgetown, and .try to basically figure out our flaws and just get going.”
Pittsburgh trailed by 14 points at halftime, managed to claw within two points twice in the final 5 minutes, but came up short when their two major weaknesses surfaced – a reliance on their outside shooting and poor rebounding.
Carter, who did not start for the Scarlet Knights (10-3, 1-1) because of a minor violation of team rules, was the difference in giving coach Mike Rice his first win since returning from a three-game school-imposed suspension for inappropriate behavior earlier this week. He hit 6 of 14 from the field and nine free throws. His last basket came on a shot in the lane after a dunk by Steven Adams with 3:24 to play got Pittsburgh within 55-53 with 3:24 to go.
“It feels good to get this win,” Carter said. “I wasn’t really focused coming off the bench. I just played my normal game. They’re a great team so it’s a great win.”
Carter hit his short jumper with 2:53 to go and Dane Miller added two free throws after James Robinson and Tray Woodall missed 3-pointers on the ensuing possession to secure the game.
Myles Mack added 11 points and Miller finished with nine points and six rebounds for the Scarlet Knights, who were coming off a 78-53 loss to No. 7 Syracuse in Rice’s return.
Woodall added 11 points, but only shot 3 of 11 from the field in a game the Panthers were limited to 37.5 percent shooting, including 8 of 26 from long range.
“It was fool’s gold thinking that was the best shot there,” Woodall said. “We definitely could have gotten better shots and settled for 3s and I was the main culprit of taking the 3s.”
Pittsburgh’s inability to hit from the outside caused it to trail 39-25 at halftime and only when the Panthers managed to push the ball inside and play much better defense did they get back into the game.
The Panthers limited Rutgers to six points in the opening 12 minutes of the second half to get back in the game, but they never could get over the hump.
Even when they were lucky, it didn’t help. Durand Johnson banked in a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to get Pittsburgh within 53-51 with 4:23 to go but the Panthers failed to come up with an offensive rebound on a missed jumper from the corner by Mike Poole. Miller got the board and fed Jerome Seagears for a layup, which was credited when goaltending was called.
After a turnover by Woodall and a missed shot by Miller, Woodall fed Adams for a dunk, cutting the lead to 55-53.
Carter hit a short jumper in the lane and the Scarlet Knights were never threatened.
Pittsburgh lost forward Talib Zanna late in the game when he picked up his fourth foul on a play that was ruled a flagrant foul. Carter got his final two points making the free throws on the technical.
Rutgers hit its first six shots and 9 of 12 in racing to a 22-8 lead in the opening 8 minutes.
The Panthers made a brief 10-2 run to draw within 24-18 in the next 4 minutes but the Scarlet Knights got seven points from Carter in a 10-1 spurt.
Rutgers shot nearly 58 percent from the field (15 of 26), making 6 of 10 from long range.