ORLANDO, Fla. – Unselfish offense, tenacious defense.
When Pitt plays like it did in routing Colorado 77-48 in the South Regional Thursday, the ninth-seeded Panthers think they are capable of competing with anyone.
It was difficult to argue against after Talib Zanna scored 16 of his 18 points in the opening half and Pitt built a 28-point lead. However, coach Jamie Dixon and his players know they will have to be better to go deeper in the NCAA tournament.
“We’re a better team now than we were earlier in the year,” Dixon said. “That’s what you hope to be.”
The Panthers (26-9) shot 51 percent from the field and played one of their best games of the season defensively in advancing to a third-round matchup Saturday against top-seeded Florida.
Dixon said the Panthers are feeling a lot better about themselves since winning two of three games in last week’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, including a quarterfinal victory over North Carolina.
“I think last week opened our eyes,” Dixon said. “We didn’t win the tournament, but we thought we could have.”
Colorado (23-12) was eager to make amends for an early exit from the tournament a year ago, but had no answers for the 6-9 Zanna.
The Pitt center made six of seven shots in the first half, and the Panthers didn’t have any difficulty finishing off the overwhelmed Buffaloes.
“We’ve got to take care of the ball better and we’ve got to guard better and we’ve got to rebound better,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “We didn’t do any of those things today. I don’t know what Colorado team it was.”
Josh Scott led the Buffaloes with 14 points, however Colorado couldn’t overcome a subpar performance from Askia Booker, who missed his first seven shots and didn’t score from the field until 4 minutes into the second half.
Cameron Wright had 11 points and Lamar Patterson finished with 10 for Pitt, which moved from the Big East to the ACC this season, where it finished fifth.
Zanna, who had a monster game in the ACC tournament with 19 points and 21 rebounds against North Carolina, didn’t attempt a shot in the second half, when Dixon gave his starters plenty of rest. Michael Young had nine points in 21 minutes and no regular played more than 30.
“I was just trying to be patient. I know if I’m open, the ball is going to come to me,” said Zanna, a senior from Kaduna, Nigeria. “I was wide open just trying to run the floor, and I was just having wide-open layups.”
Colorado, whose 23 wins are the second-most in school history, entered the game coming off one of their worst offensive performances of the season in 20-point loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament. The Buffaloes were limited to a season-low 15 field goals while shooting 29 percent from the field with Scott finishing with a season-low four points and two rebounds.
It didn’t get any better against Pitt, which is in the NCAA tournament for the 10th time in 11 seasons under Dixon. The Panthers lost in the second round to Wichita State a year ago and will be looking for their first trip to the round of 16 since 2009.
“They came out from the start and got on us early and we weren’t able to recover,” Colorado’s Xavier Johnson said. “No one wants to go out like that, so it hurts. But that will motivate us to get better in the offseason.”
Colorado shot 29.4 percent from the field in the opening half, with Booker missing all four of his attempts from the field and being limited to two free throws. Scott had five points on 2-for-3 shooting, but an even bigger indication of the team’s troubles: the Buffaloes had zero assists and 10 turnovers.
Pitt, meanwhile, matched its point total for its previous game, a 51-48 loss to Virginia in the semifinals of last week’s ACC tournament. The Panthers had 13 assists on 18 baskets in the first 20 minutes, and they outscored Colorado 12-2 in points off turnovers in building the 28-point halftime lead.
Booker, like Scott averaging 14 points per game, finished with six on 2-for-9 shooting. Johnson scored 11 points for the Buffaloes, who made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to avoid finishing with fewer points than Pitt scored in the opening half alone.
“You go in at halftime down 28, there’s not a lot you can say to your guys positively, other than the fact that we had to come out and compete – and you shouldn’t have to ask our guys to do that,” Boyle said.
“We never gave up. These guys kept battling. It just wasn’t our day,” he added. “You look at every statistical category you want to. When you have five assists and 17 turnovers, it’s hard.”
The 29-point defeat was the largest-ever for the Buffaloes in the NCAA tournament. The previous low point was a 73-46 loss to eventual national champion Cincinnati in 1962.