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Pitt pulls away from Albany in final tuneup before entering ACC

| Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, 3:00 p.m.

Albany's Will Brown considers Jamie Dixon a “good friend” in the college basketball coaching ranks, to the point that Brown once briefly accepted an offer to become a Pitt assistant on Ben Howland's staff.

So, imagine Brown's surprise when Dixon ditched his bread-and-butter man-to-man defense in favor of a zone after the Great Danes shot their way to an early first-half lead against the Panthers.

After struggling at the start and getting a late second-half scare, Pitt pulled away from Albany for a 58-46 victory Tuesday afternoon at Petersen Events Center in the final nonconference game before the Panthers begin their inaugural ACC basketball season.

Pitt (12-1) started on a solemn note by holding a moment of silence for Stephanie Phillips, who succumbed Tuesday morning to breast cancer. Phillips is the mother of Pitt junior forward Aron Nwanwko, who has missed the past four games to be by her side.

Defending America East champion Albany (6-7) took an 18-16 lead at the 11:45 mark, as junior forward Sam Rowley scored eight of his 10 points. Then the Great Danes went on a 1-for-10 shooting stretch, and the Panthers responded with a 12-0 run to finish the first half.

“I didn't think he was going to pull out his inner Jim Boeheim and go 2-3 zone against us that much, but I thought the zone bothered us in the first half,” Brown said, comparing Dixon to the Syracuse coach. “We haven't seen a lot of zone this year, and I thought the zone was the difference. We stood a lot against the zone. We got passive and we didn't attack it. They've got good length and they were active in the zone. … I thought they made us work and the zone was a big reason for that.”

Dixon was more concerned that the Panthers overcame going 0 for 7 on free throws in the first half to make 9 of 10 in the second half, and that they won the rebounding battle, 40-27, while playing in the 2-3 zone.

“I've been wanting to use the zone more and more. We haven't been in the situation,” Dixon said. “I thought they might be a team that was good to use it against, but I'm glad we rebounded out of it. That's the main concern.”

Lamar Patterson became the 42nd player in school history to eclipse the 1,000-point mark, scoring on his first shot at 14:18. The 6-foot-5 fifth-year senior swingman from Lancaster made 5 of 11 shots to finish with 14 points, giving him 1,013 career points.

“It feels good, I guess,” Patterson said. “I've been around long enough, so it's a good accomplishment.”

The star of the game was Cameron Wright, who scored eight of his 14 points amid that 12-0 run. The 6-foot-4 redshirt junior from Cleveland finished with career highs of eight rebounds and eight assists without a turnover. With his 7 of 12 shooting combined with his assists, Wright had a hand in 15 of Pitt's 24 field goals.

“Cam Wright, I was impressed with him,” Brown said. “We had to give up something. We weren't going to let Patterson beat us. We wanted them to make jump shots. It's surprising that Wright doesn't shoot from 3 at all because he's such an amazing midrange shooter. But somebody had to step up and make plays for them. We packed it in real tight and you've got to give Wright credit.”

Albany went 13:20 between field goals before point guard DJ Evans, who scored 15 of his game-high 18 in the second half, hit a pull-up jumper at 14:55 remaining to cut it to 36-22. Pitt led by as many as 16 points, 46-30, before Albany responded with a 11-2 run to cut it to 48-41 with 3:33 remaining.

The Panthers begin their 18-game ACC schedule Saturday at North Carolina State. The Panthers' lone loss came against Cincinnati on Dec. 17 at the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden, when Patterson missed two free throws with a one-point lead in the final 30 seconds.

Brown, a self-described college basketball “junkie,” predicted that Pitt would be among the ACC's top four programs, along with Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse.

“Anytime you defend and rebound at a high level consistently, whether you're good offensively and have great shooting or whatever it is, you're going to be in games, even when you don't play well,” Brown said. “That's the thing about Pitt: Pitt's never going to be out of a game because they defend and rebound. There's a lot of people out there (that say), ‘They can't score. They win ugly.' Let's face it: They should be undefeated. You make a free throw or two late in the game against Cincinnati, game over.

“They're a team that nobody is going to enjoy to play against.”

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