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Zanna lifts Pitt toward double bye in Big East Tournament

| Monday, March 4, 2013, 11:06 p.m.
Pitt's Talib Zanna fights for a rebound in front of Villanova's JayVaughn Pinkston on Sunday, March 3, 2013, at Petersen Events Center. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

Credit Pitt junior forward Talib Zanna for patience during a recent scoring slump.

“I knew I had that in me,” said Zanna after scoring nine of his 14 points Sunday in overtime of Pitt's 73-64 victory. “I was just waiting for the moment to come.”

But don't forget the more important elements of Zanna's game, such as a powerful 6-foot-9, 230-pound frame and the ability to seize a difficult moment.

Pitt stretched its winning streak to three and moved in range of the coveted double bye in the Big East Tournament next week largely because Zanna took over a tense game.

Actually, he was an unlikely hero.

Zanna, who ran up and down mountains in his native Nigeria to increase fitness and strength before settling in the United States in 2006, had been Pitt's leading scorer through much of the nonconference schedule.

The victory against Villanova marked the 13th time he has scored at least 11 points, but only two have occurred after a 15-point effort Jan. 8 against Georgetown. Prior to Sunday, he had averaged 5.5 points over the previous 13 games after scoring at a 13.1 rate in the first 16.

“You can't play great every game,” coach Jamie Dixon said, “and he had some great games earlier in the year. His numbers haven't been as good, but he hasn't stopped working. His hard work, physicality, toughness and relentlessness came out (Sunday) in numbers.”

Zanna was thrust into a different role against Villanova, with 7-foot freshman center Steven Adams out with an ankle injury. He responded by controlling the space around the basket, getting nearly 30 percent of the teams' total rebounds (19 of 64).

Filling the 5-spot suited Zanna, who maintained a 5.7-per-game rebounding average through his scoring slump.

“He often has a slower guy on him, not as agile,” Dixon said.

“I just keep crashing the glass,” Zanna said, “and the balls keep falling into my hands.”

With Dixon unwilling to commit to Adams' return Saturday at DePaul, Zanna's contributions may become even more important.

Pitt, which jumped to No. 20 Monday in the Associated Press poll, is fourth in the Big East, holding the last spot that will allow the Panthers to take off March 12-13 in next week's Big East Tournament and go directly to the quarterfinals March 14.

“We probably need that double bye, so we might play three games instead of four,” Zanna said. “It's important, this (DePaul game) on Saturday.”

The double bye wasn't the easiest road in recent seasons, with Pitt losing in the quarterfinals in 2009-11 to West Virginia, Notre Dame and Connecticut.

In 2008, Pitt was the No. 7 seed, but won the tournament championship by winning four in a row, including the title game against No. 1 Georgetown.

History doesn't interest Dixon.

“We have different kids, different players,” he said.

“You want to win all the games you can. It's an accomplishment to be part of the double bye. We can't forget that.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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