PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon has spent most of the last two years convincing Durand Johnson, the perpetually energetic guard, that he doesn’t have to score to make an impact.
Maybe, but the rapidly maturing Panthers are more dangerous when he does.
Johnson poured in a career-high 17 points and Pitt raced by Maryland 79-59 on Monday night. The sophomore added three assists, three rebounds and two steals as the Panthers’ first home game as a member of the ACC looked an awful lot like the ones they used to play while spending the last decade as one of the best programs in the Big East.
“I can’t see a lot of teams coming in and beating them in this building,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “But it’s been that way for years.”
Lamar Patterson led Pitt (14-1, 2-0) with 19 points as the Panthers shot 53 percent from the floor and pulled away with relative ease in the second half.
“We want to be a 40-minute team,” Patterson said. “Teams that can’t run and stay with us, that’s good for us.”
Seth Allen led Maryland (10-6, 2-1) with 18 points but the Terrapins struggled to keep pace with Pitt, which has quickly made its at home in its new conference digs after moving over from the Big East this fall.
Johnson, limited by the flu in a victory at N.C. State on Saturday, keyed a late first-half surge that put Pitt in front and kept it going in the second half. The Panthers used a 15-7 burst to build a 13-point lead and cruise over the final 10 minutes.
“We could never make a serious push,” Turgeon said. “I wasn’t particularly pleased with the way we finished.”
The Terrapins were looking for their first 3-0 start in ACC play since 2002, when they went on to win the national title behind Juan Dixon and Steve Blake. Maryland could have used them while trying to guard the smaller, quicker Panthers.
Pitt used a lineup that spread the floor, giving Patterson and Johnson room to work. Patterson, who is developing into one of the ACC’s best all-around players, kept the Panthers in it after the Terrapins got off to a hot start.
Maryland led 26-23 with 6 minutes left in the half when Johnson got rolling. The Baltimore, Md., native, who felt bypassed by some ACC schools, did his best to take it out on the Terrapins. Chastised at times by Dixon for his penchant for just chucking 3-pointers, Johnson hit a step-back jumper to get Pitt going then added a 3-pointer and finished the half with a smooth layup as Pitt took a 36-30 lead into the break.
“I told him the other day, you’re a rebounder,” Dixon said. “He’s improved and he gives us other things and I explained this to him and I think he was in shock.”
Johnson, typically the first player off the bench, did enough to earn a rare second-half start. It immediately paid dividends. He started the half with a layup in traffic then knocked down another wide-open 3, his ever-bubbling confidence overflowing while Turgeon stomped the floor in frustration.
The balanced Terrapins, who came in having won 5 of 6 after a slow start, could find little offense outside of Allen and Evan Smotrycz, who finished with 14 point. Leading scorer Dez Wells was held to just five points on 2-of-6 shooting.
Maryland turned it over 13 times to just seven for Pittsburgh and shot just 35 percent (20 of 56) from the field.
“I thought we tried to guard the first half,” Turgeon said. “I don’t think defensively we were dialed in the second half. I think we let the score and missed jump shots affect us.”
A pair of free throws by Allen pulled the Terrapins within 40-37 early in the second half but Maryland would get no closer. Pitt moved the lead to 55-44 on a 3-pointer by Josh Newkirk and the Terrapins never got within single digits the rest of the way.
“I just kept thinking, let’s make a little run,” Turgeon said. “It didn’t happen.”
Not with the way the Panthers are playing. Save for an ugly hiccup in a one-point loss to Cincinnati last month, Pitt has been its usual dominant self. Only two of their 15 games have been decided by less than 10 points. It’s an encouraging start for a group featuring six new players, ones that are starting to gel as the meat of the schedule begins.
And for all of the Panthers’ defensive swagger, it’s their offense that has caught opponents off guard. Pitt finished with 18 assists on 29 field goals and outscored Maryland 36-22 in the paint and 12-4 on the fast break.
“It’s just something we’ve been working on all summer,” Patterson said. “All we did was run. It’s only right that we’re getting out and going and pushing the tempo a little bit.”