Pitt basketball coach Dixon is proving to be quick learner

Pitt's Sterling Smith passes the ball as he falls to the floor next to Notre Dame's V.J. Beachem during the first half Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in South Bend, Ind.
Pitt's Sterling Smith passes the ball as he falls to the floor next to Notre Dame's V.J. Beachem during the first half Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in South Bend, Ind.
Photo by AP
John Harris
| Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, 10:24 p.m.

Try as he might, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon isn't totally comfortable letting go of the past.

The Panthers held leads of 18 points in each half against Notre Dame on Saturday, only to almost fritter away both advantages.

Accustomed to maintaining a slower pace in previous seasons, Dixon attempted to pull the plug on his new-look, high-scoring offense — and nearly paid the price.

Ahead 72-54, the Panthers were outscored 23-7 and held a tenuous 79-77 lead with 1:58 to play.

“We learned our lesson,”' Dixon said following the Panthers' 86-82 victory. “We pulled back a little bit offensively. With the 30-second clock, there's not much time to take off the shot clock. Keep attacking.”

Dixon is beginning to trust the Panthers, who average 85.3 points after averaging 67.0 points last year. The Panthers won their past two games despite yielding an average of 83.0 points.

The explanation is simple. It's becoming easier for Dixon to loosen the reins and trust players who are experienced.

The Panthers are certainly that with graduate transfers Sterling Smith and Rafael Maia, senior James Robinson, and juniors Michael Young and Jamel Artis in the starting lineup.

Another graduate transfer, Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, joined by juniors Sheldon Jeter (Beaver Falls) and Chris Jones, provide more experience off the bench.

Jeter said the Panthers passed the test of winning their first road game of the year due to experience.

“The only time somebody can get bothered playing on the road is when they're young,” said Jeter, who scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half against Notre Dame filling in for the foul-plagued Young.

“Last year, we were winning at Louisville. Next thing you know, they took over and we couldn't respond. We just froze up.

“This time, we were winning and Notre Dame came back. The crowd started really getting into it. We were able to maintain our composure and pull it out.”

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Pitt's transformation could influence how he crafts his roster in the future.

“Jamie's done a great job reinventing,” said Brey, who also mentioned Louisville and Georgia Tech as two other ACC teams who start graduate transfers. “They've done a great job with the graduate transfers and getting really old. That is an interesting dynamic that I have to have more of an open mind to.”

The Panthers' starting lineup averages 22 years.

“Give Pitt credit,” Brey said. “They've reinvented, philosophically, in this league.”

John Harris is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jharris@tribweb.com or via Twitter @jharris_trib.

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