PITTSBURGH – Jim Boeheim spent two hours watching Pittsburgh’s unusual 10-man rotation swarm No. 6 Syracuse into a flurry of missed shots, missed rebounds and missed opportunities in a 65-55 victory on Saturday and thinks he may have finally figured out who’s on top of the wide-open Big East.
“They’re the best team we’ve played, without any question,” Boeheim said. “It’s not even close.”
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon isn’t quite ready to go that far. Yet there’s little doubt the Panthers and Orange are heading in opposite directions.
“In everybody’s eyes there’s this huge difference (between Pitt and Syracuse) but we felt we’d lost some close games, they won some close games,” Dixon said. “You can’t panic.”
Something Pitt never seems to do when facing a highly ranked opponent at home. Tray Woodall had 13 points, four assists and three steals as the Panthers improved to 13-1 against Top 10 teams since the Petersen Events Center opened a decade ago.
“We felt like it was a must win,” Woodall said.
Trey Zeigler added six points, four rebounds and four assists off the bench for the Pitt (18-5, 6-4 Big East), which gave its tidy record some needed polish by dominating the undermanned Orange on the glass.
The Panthers outrebounded Syracuse 39-24, held the Orange to 37 percent shooting (18 of 49) and never trailed in the second half. Injuries and personnel issues forced Syracuse to play with just seven scholarship players, though Boeheim doesn’t think the short bench was as much of an issue as Pitt’s ability to guard.
“They’re a tremendous defensive team, knew we were going to have trouble scoring against them,” he said. “When the game was in doubt, we had some opportunities and didn’t finish.”
C.J. Fair led Syracuse (18-3, 6-2) with 20 points and Brandon Triche scored 14 but couldn’t stop Syracuse from its first losing streak in nearly two years. Michael Carter-Williams added 13 points for Syracuse but the nation’s leader in assists finished with just two - nearly seven below his average. The Orange had just five assists on 18 baskets.
“They make you drive and our inside guys just aren’t ready yet,” Boeheim said. “C.J. had a good game and our two guards had offensive games. But we can’t go to Jerami (Grant), we can’t go to (Rakeem Christmas), they’re not going to be a factor.”
The Panthers haven’t been much of a factor in the Big East over the two seasons. Pitt missed the NCAA tournament for the first time this millennium last season and came in just 1-3 against ranked teams this year, the lone win a 25-point romp over Georgetown last month that sent the Hoyas tumbling out of the polls.
This one should have a little more resonance after a satisfying win in front of a packed house that included thousands of students who camped overnight in the lobby of the arena in order to get some prime seats.
The game was tied at 35 midway through the second half when Pitt took control for good. Cam Wright hit a 3-pointer with the shot clock expiring to put the Panthers in front. Lamar Patterson followed with a pullup jumper and Steven Adams put back a miss that allowed Pitt to push in front 43-37.
Freshman Durand Johnson followed shortly thereafter with a 3-pointer of his own. The ebullient swingman put his fingers over his eye in celebration as the lead ballooned to 48-39. Syracuse never got closer than five the rest of the way as Pitt made its free throws after going just 3 of 12 at the line in a loss at No. 12 Louisville on Monday.
“It was real important,” Woodall said. “We know we came off a loss in Louisville where we felt we were the better team.”
The Panthers left no doubt on Saturday as Syracuse failed to put together the bounce back performance it needed after a long week to think about a 75-71 overtime loss to Villanova.
The Orange played without center DaJuan Coleman, who underwent left knee surgery on Tuesday that will sideline him for at least four weeks. Coleman’s injury significantly shortened Syracuse’s bench, though depth was hardly necessary during a methodical, hard fought game that should serve as a wake-up call to the ACC of what awaits when the two schools switch leagues next year.
Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone has never been much of an issue for Pitt under Dixon. The Panthers began the day 9-3 against the Orange during Dixon’s tenure and, after a slow start, Pitt once again found the little creases in Syracuse’s defense to get open shots. The Panthers started the game 1 of 8 but finished the half 12 of 26, with all but two of the buckets coming off assists.
The result was a 27-25 halftime lead, Pitt going ahead on a dunk by Talib Zanna after Zeigler slashed to the middle then fed Zanna sprinting to the basket from the corner. Pitt finished with 19 assists on 24 baskets, the kind of unselfish play the Panthers have made their hallmark.
While some coaches may struggle to juggle egos while trying to play 10 men a game, Dixon says that’s not a problem. Every Pitt player scored, all but one had at least one rebound and seven Panthers notched at least one assist.
“This team is unique,” Dixon said. “I think the strength is in playing 10 guys. That’s not normal but that’s what works for us.”