The best player on the court inside the Petersen Events Center Monday night was Kemba Walker, Connecticut’s All-America junior guard, who poured in 31 points. But the reason Pitt won going away in the Big East opener was because of its first-rate team concept.
While Walker was a one-man show for No. 4 Connecticut, the No. 6 Panthers showed why they were the preseason favorites to claim the conference championship by beating the Huskies, 78-63.
The Panthers passed up good shots to get better shots, shared the ball and made all of the right plays down the stretch when the Huskies mounted a late comeback bid.
Pitt solved Connecticut’s defense, shooting 52 percent (25 for 48) from the field. The Panthers totaled 19 assists to boost their league-leading average and got to the foul line 30 times in a physical game with 49 fouls.
"I’m really pleased with how our half-court offense is developing and improving," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "The way we pass and move in space, we can be very dangerous. I think we’re finally starting to realize that a contested three early in the shot clock isn’t necessary, because if we stay with it, we can get great shots. I’m not sure we realize how good we can be at this."
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said before the game that this might be the best offensive team Dixon has coached at Pitt.
The Panthers are remarkably efficient. Four players scored in double figures Monday night compared with just Walker in double digits for the Huskies.
Junior guard Ashton Gibbs led the way for Pitt with 21 points, but none of the offense he produced was forced. Gibbs scored 15 of his 21 in the second half and didn’t press when things weren’t going his way early. He finished 6 for 13 from the field and 6 for 6 from the foul line.
"I got some wide-open looks, but I credit that to my teammates," Gibbs said. "They were screening and Coach was stressing that to us this week. And in this game, I got the ball, and it worked to my benefit."
The strong performances from Walker and Gibbs were not unexpected. They are the best players and leading scorers for their teams. What won this game for the Panthers was the way their post players dominated Connecticut’s young big men.
Connecticut won the rebounding battle, 36-33, and 20 of those were offensive rebounds, but only three came from Alex Oriakhi or Charles Okwandu of the Huskies’ starting frontcourt.
Oriakhi, who posted double-doubles in non-conference victories against Michigan State and Kentucky, was nearly invisible against Pitt. He finished with eight points and one rebound. Okwandu was not much better, finishing with four points and four boards.
Calhoun seemed exasperated by the performance of Oriakhi, who had 15 points and 17 rebounds against the Spartans and 18 points and 11 boards against the Wildcats at the Maui Invitational.
"I’m not sure if he’s better sitting or playing," Calhoun said. "I’m being honest. I love Alex to death. He’s not playing well. I think he has a chance to be a very good player. He’s not playing like the player he is capable of being."
Pitt’s post players were not dominant, but they were good enough. Senior center Gary McGhee posted his fourth double-double of the season with 11 points and 11 rebounds, and junior forward Nasir Robinson registered his second double-double on the year with 11 points and 10 boards.
"I thought we attacked the paint very well on offense tonight," Dixon said. "We moved the ball well and got our big guys some inside touches when they were in good position to attack the basket. I thought we were able to take better shots than they did on the interior, which is excellent, because Connecticut has a very good post offense."
Pitt built its program by playing tough defense and rebounding, but this version of the Panthers has the ability to defeat opponents in different ways. This was the third game in which they were outrebounded this season, and the Panthers managed to win two of those games. The defense, while still strong in comparison with other Big East teams, is not up to Pitt’s usual standards.
This team is doing it with a well-balanced offense that is averaging a whopping 20 assists. The Panthers also own the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the conference and rank among the most efficient offensive teams in the nation.
Connecticut, by contrast, is the Kemba Walker Show — and little else. He was 10 for 27 from the field while his teammates combined to go 9 for 33. That’s not going to get it done against teams such as Pitt or in the rough Big East.
The most glaring statistic Calhoun will underline on Tuesday: The Huskies had only six assists. Pitt had that many before the standing-room-only crowd at the Petersen Events Center settled into its seats.
The Kemba Walker Show might be good enough to beat DePaul and Providence, maybe even some of the middle-of-the-pack teams in the league, too. But it won’t be good enough against teams like Pitt.