Well, it took a while, but Pitt finally pulled away late to defeat Maryland in the 2K Sports Classic.
As is frequently mentioned, Madison Square Garden is virtually a second home to Pitt. Pitt didn't look its best on Thursday night, but their effort was still good enough for a 79-70 win. Despite shooting a dismal 32% in the first half, the Panthers still held a four-point lead mostly due to a +8 rebounding advantage. The law of averages played out as Pitt then went on to shoot over 70% in the second half.
Rebounding is really what kept Pitt in the game and ultimately allowed them to win it. Maryland came in averaging nearly 45 rebounds per game, but were held to only 23 by Pitt. The Panthers nearly doubled them up, finishing with 43 boards and a +20 rebounding advantage according to ESPN (CBSSports.com says the rebounding advantage was 49-28). We've all seen this before. Even when Pitt doesn't play their best offensively, their physicaly style not only keeps them in games, but allows them to win. Tonight was yet another example of the system working.
The other game factor was Maryland's horrible free throw shooting. The Terps shot 14-30 from the line and some of the free throws weren't even all that close. Maryland got into the bonus with more than ten minutes remaining in the second half, but still couldn't take advantage. If they shoot even a little better, the game is probably much closer.
A huge negative tonight was Pitt fighting to take a 13-point lead in the second half only to see it evaporate nearly immediately. Pitt clearly took its foot off the pedal and looked really sloppy after the big lead. It's early in the season, but this is a veteran team. No way that lead should have been gone that quickly.
Okay, so we saw the return of Nasir Robinson as well. He didn't start, but came off the bench to play eight minutes. This was his first game of the season since he underwent surgery. The question is, when he's back to full strength, will he return to a starting role? That question is getting murkier with the play of Talib Zanna, who was clearly Pitt's best player tonight. Zanna started the game and rewarded head coach Jamie Dixon with 14 points on 5-6 shooting and 13 rebounds. Zanna also gives the Panthers a bit more height than the undersized Robinson. It's going to be interesting to see what Dixon's decision is once Robinson is back to 100%.
By the way, Zanna is only a redshirt freshman. Wow. Both coaches were impressed with him tonight:
"He played well this summer and continues to improve. He works very hard," Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said of the native of Nigeria who played at Bishop McNamara H.S. in Forestville, Md., 15 miles from Maryland's College Park campus. "He's a guy that wasn't ranked high, and you know what that means, but he's good, and again, we recruit guys where they're going to be, not where they're at, and if you have a desire to get better and want to get better and you're willing to pay the price, that's what you get. He's getting better."
Maryland coach Gary Williams was impressed with Zanna's performance.
"He plays with energy, that's his job, to give his team a great offensive rebounder and do all the dirty work that most guys don't want to do," Williams said.
And speaking of the frontcourt, it's only been a few games this season, but I'm willing to say center Gary McGhee is only going to be a serviceable player, nothing more. Sure, he may have some games where he plays particularly well, but I think he is what he is - an above average defender with a limited offensive game. There's been talk of McGhee sneaking into the NBA with his big frame, but he's so far away at this point. But as I mentioned, he's a pretty good defender and did a decent job on Maryland's star, Jordan Williams.
That said, if Dante Taylor has more nights like tonight (eight points / four rebounds in only 16 minutes), he could be earning more minutes.
And I know Gary Williams is animated, but man. He couldn't have been more annoying standing and yelling after seemingly every play. Jamie Dixon isn't always much better with his exaggerated motions, but Williams really was annoying tonight.
Pitt will now face its first ranked team of the season - the winner of the Texas and Illinois game.