BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP)—Pittsburgh was just too big, too strong, and too accurate for Wright State.
The Panthers, ousted in the first round seven times in 18 previous appearances in the NCAA tournament, hit 10 of 21 3-pointers, repeatedly muscled the Raiders away from the basket, and beat them 79-58 on Thursday night.
Pittsburgh defeated both Marquette and Louisville in last week’s Big East tournament before suffering a humbling 65-42 loss to Georgetown in the title game. It was Pitt’s lowest point total of the season and its most lopsided loss in seven years.
The Panthers recovered nicely against 14th-seeded Wright State, which was fresh from a 60-55 victory over Butler in the Horizon League championship game. The Raiders, behind the hot shooting of guard DaShaun Wood, had won 11 of their previous 12 games, including two over Butler, the fifth seed in the Midwest and a winner earlier in the day.
“Them winning the conference and their tournament with Butler in it, that says a lot,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “It was so easy to tell our guys how good this team was. We were able to do some things that I wasn’t sure that we could do as far as making this kid Wood take the tough shot. He didn’t get a lot of open looks. It showed our guys were ready to really try to contain him.”
The Panthers threatened to make the game a rout at the outset, storming to a 13-0 lead as Levon Kendall, Mike Cook and Antonio Graves each hit wide-open 3-pointers in the first 94 seconds while the Raiders worried too much about 7-foot center Aaron Gray.
“It was huge,” said Gray, who finished with 11 points, nine rebounds and four blocks despite being double- and triple-teamed all game. “We knew that to be successful in the tournament, you’ve got to get a good start. You never want to play a game having to work from behind because sometimes you use so much energy coming back you don’t have that energy you need in the stretch.”
But with their band playing loudly and more than 400 fans cheering them on, the Raiders finally got untracked, and it was a freshman who provided the spark. After missing two straight shots, Todd Brown hit a reverse layup off a missed 3 by Wood, then hit two mid-range jumpers.
After Keith Benjamin followed his own miss to give Pitt a 21-10 lead at 12:03, Wright State went on a 12-1 run to tie it, Wood finishing the spurt with a 3 from right wing to make it 22-all at 8:32.
But then Brown intentionally fouled Gray under the Pitt basket, pulling him to the floor with 6:41 left as the Panthers reeled from the Wright State surge.
The game was never the same again. Gray hit a short hook and Sam Young followed with a 3 from right wing to put Pitt ahead for good as the Panthers outscored the Raiders 17-5 to close the half.
“That play just kind of re-ignited us,” Gray said, “We had kind of lost something. We allowed them to tie the game back up. It just kind of kicked something back in us. We’re a blue-collar city, we’re tough players out there, and a play like that just kind of reminded us.”
Young converted a fast-break layup with 1:51 remaining and Ronald Ramon followed with a 3 from the top of the key to give Pitt a 43-30 halftime lead. And when the Panthers began the second half with an 11-3 spurt, the Raiders couldn’t recover.
Wright State’s only previous trip to the NCAA tournament in its 20 years in Division I came in 1993, when it was pounded 97-54 by Indiana in the first round after capturing the Mid-Continent Conference tournament title. And the Raiders started tentatively against Pitt, seemingly overwhelmed by the moment, missed their first four shots, committed a turnover and fell way behind.
“It was our first time in the tournament and it kind of looked like it early,” Wright State coach Brad Brownell said.
Ramon hit four 3s and finished with 14 points, and Young had 13 to lead the Panthers, who never trailed. Kendall had 10 points, Graves had eight, and Levance Fields had nine assists, matching his career high.
Pittsburgh (28-7), the third seed in the West Regional, will meet 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth (28-6) in the second round on Saturday. VCU upset Duke 79-77 just moments before the Panthers and Raiders took the floor at HSBC Arena.