PITTSBURGH – So much for any concerns Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon had about his team looking past DePaul to showdowns next week with No. 3 Syracuse and No. 5 Louisville.
Trey Zeigler scored a season-high 18 points and the Panthers crushed DePaul 93-55 on Saturday for their fourth straight victory.
“We feel like every game is a big game, we don’t take any game lightly,” Pitt guard Tray Woodall said. “We just want to make sure we go out and play our game, make sure we want to go out and be aggressive.”
That was hardly a problem for the Panthers (17-4, 5-3 Big East), who took control midway through the first half and never let up on their way to the biggest Big East win in school history.
The 38-point margin of victory was the highest ever by Pitt in a Big East game, eclipsing a 36-point romp over West Virginia in 2003.
“You rarely think you’re going to have games like this in this conference,” Dixon said. “Once we got ahead we didn’t look for our own, we looked for each other. That was the key to sustaining it.”
Lamar Patterson added 15 points and Steven Adams added nine points and a season-high 14 rebounds for Pitt. The Panthers moved into third in the muddled Big East after dominating the reeling Blue Demons.
Not bad for a team that was just 1-3 in the league two weeks ago. Now they have a chance to make some serious noise against the struggling Cardinals on Monday night before hosting the Orange next Saturday.
“I don’t know the standings, I just know we’re playing better,” Dixon said.
And struggling DePaul is not.
Brandon Young led the Blue Demons (10-9, 1-5) with 13 points and Moses Morgan chipped in 11, but DePaul was never in it while losing for the sixth time in seven games. The Blue Demons shot just 27 percent (18 of 65) and were outrebounded 58-34 while suffering their worst loss in nearly two years.
“This is obviously one we’d like to flush away and burn the tape,” DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said.
Dixon was worried about how his team would handle DePaul’s full-court pressure and early on the Blue Demons were able to rattle the Panthers into uncharacteristic mistakes. Pitt came in leading the country in assist/turnover ratio but threw it away six times in the first 10 minutes.
“They wanted to speed us up throughout the game,” Woodall said. “It took time to get used to it, but we wanted to get layups. We took what they gave us and took open shots.”
DePaul managed to hang around, but only for a bit. Once the Panthers settled down, they were able to get wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Woodall and Patterson led a 23-5 push midway through the first half to end the competitive portion of the night before halftime.
The Blue Demons simply couldn’t keep up. If they weren’t missing shots — DePaul went just 9 of 33 (27 percent) from the floor in the first half — then they were giving the ball away in transition or getting dominated on the glass.
Pitt’s size and ability to stay under control once it got comfortable playing at the up-tempo pace the Blue Demons prefer eventually made DePaul’s defense ineffective.
The result was a 53-30 halftime lead, the Panthers’ highest scoring half of the season. The 23-point edge tied for the second-largest halftime advantage ever by the Panthers against a Big East rival, a record that would have been broken if Morgan hadn’t hit a high arcing 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of the 7-foot Adams at the horn.
While Pitt has struggled at times putting two solid halves together this season, there were no such issues against the overmatched Blue Demons. The Panthers scored three quick buckets to open the second half, allowing the Panthers to look ahead to the most pivotal week of the season.
Pitt has already matched last year’s Big East win total with 10 league games remaining. The Panthers know a couple of those have to come against some of the conference’s heavyweights if they want to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee. Pitt missed the tournament last season for the first time under Dixon.
The coach insists his team is better this year and Pitt is one of the deeper teams in the country. The Panthers play with a 10-man rotation that worked brilliantly on Saturday. All 10 players collected at least one point, one rebound and one assists.
“We’ve got 10 guys that bring it every day,” Woodall said. “We’ve got guys that can contribute and lead us in scoring. We just want to keep playing hard and keep playing better.”
The mismatch allowed Dixon to experiment with his lineup in the second half. Pitt’s bench actually outscored its starters 52-41, with Zeigler leading the way. The junior transfer from Central Michigan is starting to settle into his new role coming off the bench. He knocked down 7 of 12 shots and added five rebounds, including four on the offensive glass.
“I think these last couple weeks, I’ve found myself a little bit in the offense and what coach wants me to do,” Zeigler said. “Being out there, I’ve been able to find my groove and just be myself a little bit more.”