CINCINNATI – A four-week rampage through the top of the Big East has earned No. 23 Pittsburgh a lot of attention. The Panthers are ready for even more.
Tray Woodall scored 14 points and led a late surge that sent the Panthers to a 62-52 victory over No. 17 Cincinnati Saturday, keeping the momentum going for one of the league’s hottest teams.
The Panthers (20-5, 8-4) have won seven of their last eight games overall and four of their last five on the road. They beat No. 6 Syracuse 65-55 a week ago, vaulting them into the Top 25. After trailing Cincinnati for much of the game, they had the grit to pull out another one at the end.
It’s no longer a surprise – not to them, anyway.
“We’ve got eight wins in the conference, but we’ve still got a lot to prove,” Woodall said. “A lot of people kept saying we couldn’t hang with the big boys or we can’t hang with the top-tier teams in the Big East. But clearly they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Woodall hit a pair of free throws and a 3-pointer during a 7-0 run that put Pitt ahead to stay with 3:21 left. The conference’s stingiest defense held Cincinnati (18-6, 6-5) without a field goal over the final 9 minutes, 21 seconds.
The Bearcats managed only seven free throws during that stretch. Sean Kilpatrick led Cincinnati with 16 points, but had only one free throw in the second half, when he missed all seven shots from the field. He came into the game averaging 18.3 points, third-best in the Big East.
Cincinnati missed its last 14 shots and made only 30.8 percent from the field, a season low. The Panthers switched to a zone in the second half to cool off Kilpatrick, and Cincinnati missed a lot of open shots.
“The zone was something that I thought we would use, but I didn’t anticipate using it that much or having the amount of success we had with it,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said.
The Bearcats were coming off a 54-50 loss at Providence Wednesday night that ended when Kilpatrick lost his dribble at midcourt while Cincinnati set up for a final shot. This time, they couldn’t make a shot.
“In February, you’ve got to understand there’s a lot of teams around the country that tend to fold,” Kilpatrick said. “That’s human nature. Everyone is so laid-back to the point they want the season to be over, but that can’t be the case at all. We’ve got to want it more than the other team and today, that didn’t happen.”
Both teams rely on their depth, using 10 players regularly. Cincinnati’s depth on the frontline was tested by an injury and foul trouble. Forward Justin Jackson played only 7 minutes before leaving with an injury. He came out at halftime and tried to shoot and shuffled his feet, but favored his left leg and quickly gave up.
Coach Mick Cronin didn’t have any information about the extent of Jackson’s injury.
Center Cheikh Mbodj went to the bench with his fourth foul at the 16:25 mark of the second half, leaving the Bearcats’ frontline further depleted. Pitt’s balance and depth pulled out a close game throughout – neither team led by double digits until the closing seconds.
Pitt outrebounded Cincinnati 18-15 in the second half, when the Bearcats went for a long stretch without an offensive rebound.
The game started as a defensive slog, which was expected. Pitt leads the Big East in defense, allowing only 54.5 points per game. Cincinnati is fourth, giving up 58.6.
Kilpatrick has been the Bearcats’ only consistent scoring threat lately, with point guard Cashmere Wright recovering from a sprained knee. Kilpatrick carried his team through the first half, scoring 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting for a 31-26 lead.
Pitt clamped down on Kilpatrick in the second half, but couldn’t make up much ground at the outset. Kilpatrick kept missing – he even shot an airball on a 3-point try – and Wright was only 2 of 12 from the field overall, giving Pitt its chance.
“We did a good job,” forward Lamar Patterson said. “Kilpatrick went off in the first half, but he was the focal point in the second half.”
Seven-foot center Steven Adams took advantage of Cincinnati’s problems up front. He made a one-hand shot near the basket, and Woodall hit a long 3 with the shot clock running down during an eight-point run that put Pitt up 47-45 with 6:14 left, the Panthers’ first lead of the second half. Adams finished with 13 points.
Woodall hit a pair of free throws and a 3-pointer that made it 54-48 with 3:21 left. The Panthers made all six of their free throw attempts in the final minute to hold on.