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Pitt pulls away from USF with strong second half

| Thursday, March 3, 2011

TAMPA, Fla. — It's a good thing the NCAA Tournament seeding committee considers only "bad losses" and not "bad halves."

Pitt, which had lost two of its past three games, overcame another sluggish start to dispose of South Florida, 66-50, on Wednesday at a half-empty Sun Dome to remain one game ahead of second-place Notre Dame in the Big East standings.

The No. 4 Panthers (26-4, 14-3), who trailed, 27-24, at halftime, scored 25 of the first 32 points in a red-hot second half to put away USF (9-21, 3-14).

"We know we needed this win," senior center Gary McGhee said. "In the second half, we just came out and played with everything we have."

Pitt hit 11 of its first 12 field-goal attempts in the second half, building a 49-34 lead on Ashton Gibbs' 3-pointer — his third in a 2:19 span — with 11 minutes to play. Pitt, down by five points late in the first half, led by as many as 21 in the second half.

"They came out a different team," USF senior Jarrid Famous said. "They came out more aggressive. We should have come out stronger."

With the win, Pitt has clinched at least a share of the Big East regular-season title.

"It's the toughest conference in the country, and we are the champs of it," coach Jamie Dixon said. "Nobody has been a champion of a conference with 11 NCAA Tournament bids ... (or) nine NCAA Tournament bids. That puts it in perspective right there. No one has had to beat as many good people as we have in any conference before."

USF coach Stan Heath, who beat Pitt in the 2002 NCAA Sweet Sixteen while at Kent State, said Pitt could make a deep run into March — or get beat early.

"It certainly is a team that could go very far," he said. "It's also a team that could stumble. It just depends on the matchups and who they go against."

Only slumping Villanova, on Saturday at Petersen Events Center, stands between Pitt and the No. 1 seed in the Big East Tournament for only the third time since the Panthers joined the conference 28 years ago (1988 and 2004 were the others).

And despite Pitt's recent first-half woes, it will also mean a near-certain No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

"We feel good," said Nasir Robinson, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds. "We're going to play this last game against 'Nova and we're not going to worry about the No. 1 seeds. We're going to play hard and, hopefully, things work out good."

Pitt, which lost on a buzzer-beater (St. John's) and in overtime (Louisville) in its past two road games, trailed at halftime for the sixth time in their past nine games. But Pitt shot 61 percent from the field in the second half (17 for 28), while outrebounding USF, 20-10.

Gibbs scored 13 of his 16 in the second half, making all three 3-point attempts, as Dixon broke the all-time NCAA Division I record for most wins (214) after eight seasons as a head coach.

Famous recorded a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) in the first half, but finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds for USF.

Pitt outrebounded USF, 20-10 in the second half, allowing the Panthers to push the tempo.

"We thought we could beat them in transition," Dixon said. "It's hard to run and get out and go when you can't get a rebound."

Note: Wanamaker, who finished with seven points, seven rebounds and seven assists, became only the second Pitt player to record 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists in his career.

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