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Pitt guard Newkirk shines off bench with improved shooting touch

| Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, 10:06 p.m.

Josh Newkirk has spent as much time in the gym working on his weaknesses as he has improving his strengths that it's becoming difficult to tell the difference.

The Pitt freshman guard has followed inconsistent nonconference play by becoming a catalyst off the bench for the Panthers in their first two ACC games.

“Obviously, the last two games, he's been terrific,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said after the 79-59 victory over Maryland on Monday at Petersen Events Center. “He's a great kid who listens and wants to get better, and he's got a lot of physical tools. He's quick, a good decision-maker for a freshman and he can shoot the ball well.”

The 6-foot-1 Newkirk, known primarily for his quickness at the point, is shooting 71.4 percent from the field — including 3 of 4 from 3-point range — in conference play.

In the first 13 games, Newkirk shot 41.2 percent (21 of 51) overall and 29.4 percent (5 of 17 ) from 3-point range. Yet Dixon called Newkirk “probably a better shooter than I anticipated coming in.”

And Dixon isn't alone in that assessment, noting that former Pitt and UCLA coach Ben Howland said the same when visiting this past fall.

“When Ben was here, he was surprised to see how good a shooter he was,” Dixon said. “I think he also plays well with James (Robinson), too. That's a nice combination that we have.”

A Raleigh, N.C., native, Newkirk had a happy homecoming Saturday against N.C. State. He snapped the Wolfpack's early 15-0 run with a breakaway, later adding a 3-pointer to cut it to 25-20.

Newkirk made the first of two treys against Maryland in the first half, then added a 15-foot pull-up jumper.

Dixon said Newkirk's 3-pointer off an out-of-bounds play with 13:39 in the second half — which gave the Panthers their first double-digit lead — “broke it open.”

This isn't the first time Newkirk has made major contributions — he was 4 of 6 overall and 3 of 3 on 3-pointers in scoring 11 points against Savannah State in the opener — but it marks his best back-to-back performances.

“It means a lot,” Newkirk said. “It gave me a confidence boost. I'm just coming in and bringing energy, just doing the little things right. Hopefully, I'll be able to play more.”

The Panthers see Newkirk and Durand Johnson as spark plugs off the bench, which has carried them through first-half struggles in two ACC games.

“Josh brings a different speed than James,” fifth-year senior Lamar Patterson said. “It definitely switches up our tempo a little bit.

“Teams have to prepare for Durand and Josh. They come off the bench, and they know what they've got to do: They know they've got to bring the energy. It's just good to see these guys step it up a notch in big games like this, in the ACC, and we expect it from them all year long.”

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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