Pitt pulls away late in victory over Villanova
VILLANOVA — Pitt and Villanova have a long history in the Big East, and the Wildcats have been among the league's most difficult teams to defeat at home. They had hoped to keep it that way in the 64th regular-season conference meeting between the in-state rivals.
So it might have come as something of a surprise that two Panthers who had never played at The Pavilion combined for 26 points to lead Pitt to a 58-43 victory over Villanova on Wednesday night before a capacity crowd of 6,500.
Pitt (14-4, 2-3) tied the all-time series, 32-32, with its fifth consecutive victory over Villanova since losing to the Wildcats in the 2009 NCAA Elite Eight. Villanova (11-6, 2-2) had won nine of the previous 14 meetings at The Pavilion, the on-campus arena where they own an .800 winning percentage.
Where the Wildcats kept Pitt's top scorers from dominating, they couldn't stop two of their top substitutes. Durand Johnson and Trey Zeigler scored 13 points apiece — both career-highs in a Pitt uniform — in igniting the Panthers' stagnant offense.
Johnson, a redshirt freshman, made three 3-pointers in 23 minutes for his second consecutive double-digit game after scoring 11 in a 74-67 overtime loss to Marquette. Zeigler, a junior who transferred from Central Michigan, was 6 of 10 with a team-high six rebounds in 25 minutes.
“I think it was huge,” Zeigler said. “Me and Durand are scorers. We took advantage of the minutes we had. We wanted to give our team a boost. We're guys that can give offense.”
But it was the way Pitt (14-4, 2-3) crashed the boards that pleased Panthers coach Jamie Dixon the most. Villanova led the Big East in rebounding margin at plus-9.7, but Pitt finished with a 39-27 edge and held the Wildcats to one offensive rebound.
“I'm really proud of our guys. We spent the last couple days and pep talk before the game talking about rebounding,” Dixon said. “We won it by rebounding and defending against a very good rebounding and defensive team.”
Villanova was 9-0 when holding opponents to 70 points or less this season. Wildcats coach Jay Wright credited Pitt for its scheme, which involved defending post players from behind. It forced them to shoot away from the basket and didn't allow for second-chance points, where Pitt held an 11-0 edge.
“They had a great game plan,” Wright said. “They stayed behind our forwards in the post. When you stay behind them, you always have rebounding position when you miss. We just didn't do a good job of handling their defense.”
Darrun Hilliard led Villanova with 14 first-half points, including three 3-pointers, and two steals to help the Wildcats overcome a 22-15 deficit and take a 23-22 halftime lead. The 6-foot-6 sophomore guard missed most of the second half, however, after jamming his right thumb.
Johnson sparked the Panthers after the Wildcats used a 9-2 run to open the second half and take a 32-25 lead. Pitt answered with a 7-0 run thanks to Johnson's 3-pointer followed by a falling-down jumper from the left corner, and Zeigler hit a jumper to tie it at 32-32.
Pitt took a five-point, second-half lead, but Villanova tied it at 43-43 when James Bell got a steal and breakaway dunk with 5:13 left.
Zeigler broke a high trap to find Steven Adams for a dunk and scored two baskets for a 49-43 lead, then made a play that put the finishing touches on Villanova. Zeigler tipped a Lamar Patterson 3-point miss back to Patterson, who drove to his right for a layup and 51-43 lead that forced Villanova to foul.
After shooting 50 percent (13 of 26) from the free-throw line against Marquette, Pitt made 19 of 26 (73.1 percent) against Villanova.
“It's very important to win on the road,” Zeigler said. “You've got to make big, big plays. Villanova's a good team, but we were able to make the right play at the right moment. We definitely needed that. It was a big win. Hopefully we can keep the momentum going.”
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.
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