Rutgers starts fast, tops No. 24 Pitt, 67-62
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The game plan for Pitt was to use its height advantage and get the ball inside, and the Panthers went directly to 7-footer Steven Adams on their opening possession for an easy layup.
Rutgers responded with runs that put No. 24 Pitt in a 14-point hole by halftime and a 67-62 victory Saturday at Rutgers Athletic Center that left the Panthers wondering what has happened to their Big East trademarks of rebounding and toughness, as well as their offensive identity.
“Certainly, we'd like to bottle that first half,” Rutgers coach Mike Rice said of the Scarlet Knights making 15 of 26 field goals (57.7 percent), including 6 of 9 attempts from 3-point range (66.7 percent).
It was the first loss at the RAC since 2001 for Pitt (12-2, 0-2), ending a string of six consecutive victories on Rutgers' home court. The Panthers lost to Rutgers for the second consecutive season, with last year's 62-39 defeat marking their worst-ever loss at Petersen Events Center.
“Give Rutgers credit,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “Obviously, they got off to a great start.”
While the Scarlet Knights (10-3, 1-1) made their first six shots to spark a 12-0 run, the Panthers abandoned the inside game almost immediately. They launched 26 3-pointers, including 15 in the first half. That they made eight — only one game after going 0 for 10 from beyond the arc in a loss to Cincinnati — was of little consolation after shooting 37.5 percent (21 of 56) overall.
“We took too many 3s. I took too many 3s,” said Pitt senior guard Tray Woodall, who was 3 of 9 and finished with 11 points, eight assists and one turnover. “We settled. We came up with fool's gold, thinking that was the best shot right there. We could have definitely got better shots, but we just settled for 3s.”
Rutgers relied on leading scorer Eli Carter, a 6-foot-2 sophomore guard who didn't start after violating team rules but quickly energized the Scarlet Knights by scoring 23 points on 6 of 14 shooting from the field and 9 of 10 on free throws.
For the second straight game, Pitt lost the battle of the boards. Despite not having a player taller than 6-9, Rutgers had a 36-24 rebounding edge. No Panthers player had more than four rebounds.
“I thought our offense led to our defensive shortcomings in the first half,” Dixon said. “But the rebounding is still a difficult number to comprehend.”
Pitt also had only two more points in the paint (26-24) despite scoring 22 off turnovers and continued to launch shots from beyond the arc when its interior game was working.
“I think their strength is in the paint,” Rice said. “That's always been Jamie's formula.”
After Durand Johnson banked in a 3-pointer from the top of the key to beat the shot clock and cut it to 55-51, Woodall threw an alley-oop to Adams for a dunk to make it 55-53 with 3:24 left. But Carter answered with a floater in the lane, and James Robinson responded by taking a 3-pointer. Adams grabbed the offensive rebound and fed it to Woodall, who missed another trey.
The final blow came when power forward Talib Zanna, whose nine points and one rebound were well below his season averages of 13.4 and 6.2, fouled out after drawing a personal foul on Wally Judge then a flagrant foul for pushing him to the floor. Rutgers made 8 of 11 free throws in the final 1:35, while Woodall and Johnson made 3-pointers to keep it close at the end.
“We're not a team that shoots a lot of 3s, so it's surprising that we would shoot a lot, especially with the emphasis,” Dixon said. “Some open ones we didn't make. We've got to do a better job of getting the ball to the right guys.”