Why Pitt’s 36-21 halftime lead in ACC Tournament win brought back memories | TribLIVE.com
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Jerry DiPaola

Did anyone notice the halftime score Tuesday night when Pitt defeated Boston College, 80-70, in the first round of the ACC Tournament?

Boston College scored the first seven points of the game, but Pitt was dominant for the remainder of the first half and went to the locker room at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., with an impressive 36-21 lead.

Aside from being Pitt’s largest halftime lead in an ACC game this season (an admittedly small sample size), that score has some historical significance for Pitt basketball. Pitt historian and author Sam Sciullo Jr. pointed out Pitt started its 22-game winning streak Dec. 4, 1973, with a 36-21 victory at Rutgers.

That was the game shortened when protestors, unhappy with Rutgers’ treatment of black students, streamed onto the court late in the first half. The game was suspended, and Pitt was awarded the victory, the first of a record 22-game winning streak.

More than four decades later, two starters on that ’74 Pitt team — Billy Knight and Tom Richards — were sitting behind the Panthers bench in Charlotte. Some ties are strong enough to survive time.

Knight and Richards saw the current Panthers (14-18 and seeded 14th in the tournament) play their best game of the season and earn a second-round date against No. 6 Syracuse at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday.

How did Pitt do it? Let’s take a look back and ahead:

1. Smart floor generalship from Xavier Johnson

Johnson scored 23 points to raise his freshman record scoring total to 508 points, but that wasn’t what set him apart. He wasn’t even Pitt’s high scorer. Trey McGowens grabbed those honors for the second game in a row with 26 points.

What Johnson did doesn’t have a column on the stat sheet and can be measured only by charting each Pitt possession. But there were several moments when Johnson looked like he wanted to challenge the Boston College defense, thought better of it, pulled the ball back and helped the team look for a cleaner shot.

The result was Johnson committed only three turnovers for the second game in a row, and the team shot 47.3 from the field, Pitt’s best percentage since Feb. 9.

2. Strong defense

Boston College (14-17) sleep-walked through most of the first half and shot only 25 percent (6 for 24) for the first 20 minutes. Much of Boston College’s lifelessness can be traced to Pitt playing good defense.

With three blocks, Terrell Brown has 106 in two seasons and is two short of moving into Pitt’s all-time top 10 in that category.

3. Scoring around the basket

Much has been made of Pitt’s need for a big man, and that’s something coach Jeff Capel is attempting to address. Meanwhile, Pitt scored 42 points in the paint to Boston College’s 18. Give Johnson and McGowens credit for attacking the basket, helping the team get 32 shots and 23 points from the free-throw line.

4. A variety of rebounders

Pitt seized 42 errant shots to Boston College’s 35, and it wasn’t just the team’s leading rebounder, Au’Diese Toney. Jared Wilson-Frame and Brown shared team rebounding honors with nine each.

If Pitt has any chance against Syracuse, Toney can’t be the only force on the boards.

5. Pitt gets its third shot at the Orange

Pitt lost twice to Syracuse this season, by 11 at the Carrier Dome and by nine at the Pete. Both times, the Panthers had a difficult time penetrating Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense, which took away what Johnson and McGowen do best: slash to the basket.

Wilson-Frame can beat the defense with his 3-pointers, and he hasn’t been bad against Syracuse (9 for 24 in two games). He could be the key to unlocking the zone.

Pitt fans might try to raise hope in knowing that Syracuse is 3-6 since its victory at the Pete. Nice try. Four of those six losses were to the ACC’s top four seeds: Virginia, North Carolina, Duke and Florida State.

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