Freshman lifts poor-shooting Panthers

Jamie Dixon still isn’t happy with No. 17 Pittsburgh’s defense.

Three weeks into the season, the Panthers are giving up too many open shots, too many offensive rebounds and too many points for their coach’s liking.

Maybe, but Dixon allows his team is starting to look, well, more like Pitt. The emergence of freshman Khem Birch has certainly helped.

Birch scored eight points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked six shots in an 81-71 victory over Robert Morris on Sunday, the latest step in the highly touted forward’s development.

”We haven’t really seen anybody like that,” Robert Morris guard Velton Jones said.

Perhaps because there are few players with the 6-foot-9 Birch’s wingspan. The six blocks were in addition to the handful of other shots he altered as the Panthers (5-1) won their third straight.

”He’s got good timing, good length obviously,” Dixon said. ”The six blocks (are nice) but we can get better defensively.”

Dixon will take the growing pains in a win, however. He’ll also take the kind of play he got off the bench against the Colonials (4-2) as Cameron Wright, John Johnson and Talib Zanna combined for 29 points and 18 rebounds. Wright finished with 13 points while Zanna posted career-highs with 10 points and 15 rebounds.

”It was good to see,” Dixon said.

Ashton Gibbs led Pitt with 21 points while Travon Woodall had 12 points and 10 assists as the Panthers improved to 30-0 all-time against their crosstown rivals and 69-0 all-time against members of the Northeast Conference.

Cordon Williams led Robert Morris with 19 points but the Panthers clamped down on Jones, Robert Morris’ star who came in averaging 19.7 points but was held to 10 on 1-of-14 shooting.

The Panthers threw several players at Jones, and his teammates struggled to pick up the slack. Zanna and Birch had a lot to do with it, as they controlled the lane when it mattered.

”Zanna was playing volleyball by himself up there a couple of times,” Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said. ”I thought too many times tonight as I watched I saw our guys watching and unfortunately they’re participating in the game and I’m just a spectator on the sideline.”

Zanna and Birch were thrust into more prominent roles due to the absence of veterans Lamar Patterson and Dante Taylor.

Both players sat out their second straight game, though for vastly different reasons. Patterson is serving a two-game suspension for a violation of team rules while Taylor continues to struggle with migraines.

The duo should be back on Wednesday when the Panthers face Duquesne, though minutes may be hard to come by considering the way Birch and Zanna are playing.

Birch had 15 points, 10 rebounds and played with boundless energy as Pitt rolled to a 20-point win in his first start on Friday at Penn. He wasn’t quite as aggressive offensively against the Colonials, though he didn’t have to be considering the way his teammates were shooting the ball.

Some of the confidence must have rubbed off on Birch, who knocked down a rare 17-footer early in the second half.

By then the Panthers were cruising. Pitt never let Robert Morris get within striking distance following a 16-4 burst midway through the first half.

The Colonials, who have dominated the NEC over the last four seasons, tried to slow down the pace early. They worked the clock on offense and made the Panthers work to get open looks, forcing Pitt into a shot clock violation on one possession and a desperation 3-pointer on another that came nowhere close to going in.

The strategy worked for a few minutes, or about as long as it took Pitt to hit the gas.

The Panthers broke it open using their signature pressure defense, taking control midway through the first half behind Wright, who turned two Robert Morris giveaways into a layup and a dunk, one that earned him a technical foul for swinging on the rim before letting go.

Williams knocked down two free throws as a result, but it hardly slowed the Panthers.

Pitt slowly kept extending the lead, playing efficiently on offense and aggressively on defense, something the Panthers have lacked at times. The Panthers were lit up in a loss to Long Beach State two weeks ago and had problems getting stops in wins over Rider and La Salle.

There were no such issues against the Colonials, who shot just 37 percent from the field and only briefly got within single digits over the game’s final 30 minutes.

Yet the Colonials continued to scrap, extending the final minute with the kind of gritty play that’s made them one of the top teams in the NEC over the last five years.

Robert Morris put up six shots during one possession and finished with 17 offensive boards even though Pitt held a 39-35 advantage on the glass.

Those kinds of numbers have to get down quickly for the Panthers, who have games against Oklahoma State and Tennessee looming in the first half of December.

”(Our defense) is getting better, but it’s not where it needs to be,” Dixon said. ”It’s been fun watching it improve … but we’re not satisfied. We need them to finish off a little bit better.”