Freshman lifts short-handed Pitt past Penn
PHILADELPHIA — Pitt five-star freshman Khem Birch admitted he felt some butterflies.
The 6-foot-9 center was making his first career start — at the legendary Palestra — in place of junior Dante Taylor, who was suffering from migraines.
"I was really nervous at first, as you could see," he said. "I missed my layup and another layup. I was really nervous. But as the game went on, I got into a flow."
Birch recorded his first double-double, as the short-handed No. 17 Panthers routed host Penn, 78-58, on Friday night in the Philly Hoop Group Classic.
Birch finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds while playing 28 minutes, all career-highs for the McDonald's All-American from Notre Dame (Mass.) Prep. He also blocked three shots for the second game in a row.
"We knew just because Taylor didn't play, that didn't mean they were going to be lacking anything," Penn coach Jerome Allen said.
The Panthers (4-1) also were without sophomore forward Lamar Patterson, who was suspended for two games by coach Jamie Dixon. Sophomore J.J. Moore made his first career start in Patterson's place and finished with 12 points and six rebounds in a career-high 31 minutes.
In front of a pro-Pitt crowd at the 84-year-old building, Moore scored the first six points to give the Panthers a lead they would not relinquish.
"I just wanted to be aggressive and show I can play on defense and I can get other teammates involved," Moore said. "I showed that today."
Birch, who played a total of nine minutes against Rider and Long Beach State, had his second strong game since shifting from power forward to center. He had four points, six assists and three blocked shots against La Salle on Tuesday.
Against Penn (3-3), his jitters departed after he soared to block a shot by Penn's Rob Belcore less than four minutes in.
"When I blocked the shot, I was, 'OK,' '' Birch said.
The Panthers also lost reserve center Talib Zanna (knee) midway through the second half. Zanna, who had eight points, didn't return.
"(He) seems to be fine," Dixon said. "It was scary. It looked like an ACL to me. He was more scared than anything. He banged it. He cut it. As he settled down, he realized it wasn't what he first thought it was."
Ashton Gibbs added 16 points on 6-of-15 shooting, and Philly native Nasir Robinson had 14 points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals.
Pitt shot 62 percent in the second half to withstand all-Ivy League guard Zack Rosen (22 points) and turn a 35-29 halftime lead into a rout.
In the first half, Birch and Moore didn't waste any time, combining for 17 points, seven rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals.
Taylor, averaging 7.0 points and 5.0 rebounds, sat out part of the first half against La Salle on Tuesday after being struck in the neck/throat but returned to play in the second half. The junior center was ruled out after suffering headaches Wednesday and Thursday.
"Headaches, but no symptoms of a concussion," Dixon noted.
Patterson, the team's leading rebounder, also will miss Sunday's game against Robert Morris for violating team rules.
"Lamar was not doing what he was supposed to do," Dixon said. "There's a right way to do things."