PITTSBURGH (AP)—Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon knew his team was in for an early season battle by facing Saint Louis and its new coach Rick Majerus on Sunday.
The Panthers responded with a 69-58 victory, using a 12-2 second-half run to break loose from a three-point lead, then hitting 8 of 10 free throws in the final 1:19 to secure the win.
Levance Fields and freshman DeJuan Blair each scored 16 points to help No. 22 Pittsburgh hand Majerus his first loss as coach of the Billikens and complete a sweep of three games at the Hispanic College Fund Basketball Challenge.
“You don’t want to play experienced teams like this in November,” Dixon said. “That’s why nobody’s doing it, but we did and it was a good experience. Saint Louis has four starters back from a 20-win season. They’re an NCAA tournament team.”
Sam Young, the tournament’s MVP, added 12 points for Pittsburgh, which hosted the four-team, round-robin exempt tournament, played over the past three days. The Panthers have started a season 3-0 for the 10th consecutive time.
“It’s a good start,” Dixon said. “This was a dangerous game. We knew they were going to grind it out against us and we were very efficient.”
Pittsburgh (3-0) shot 50.9 percent and committed just eight turnovers. The Panthers, smaller and quicker this season while playing for the first time without 7-footer Aaron Gray, a second-round NBA draft pick of the Chicago Bulls, outrebounded Saint Louis 33-24, despite the presence of Billikens 7-footer Bryce Husak.
“Pitt has unbelievable size and athleticism,” Majerus said. “They just kicked our butt. I think they’re going to have an excellent year. Blair reminds me of a young (Karl) Malone. He has phenomenal hands. I love that kid. I’d like to be his agent. He could be special.”
The 6-7, 265-pound Blair, a Pittsburgh city high school star last season, has lost 30 pounds since coming to Pitt. He grabbed a game-high eight rebounds.
“I’m a big man and I’ve got quick feet, so I just go around a lot of the taller big men,” Blair said.
Majerus returned to the bench for the first time since 2003-04, when health problems forced him to temporarily retire. He led Saint Louis to a pair of victories in the tournament over North Carolina A&T and Houston Baptist before facing a much deeper and more experienced Pittsburgh team.
“I told the coaches I made a couple of big mistakes,” Majerus said. “I should have a timeout there in the second half.”
After Saint Louis pulled within 40-37 on a 3-point shot by Paul Eckerle with 14:13 remaining, Pittsburgh went on its run, sparked by consecutive baskets by Blair during a span of 37 seconds.
Pittsburgh wore down Saint Louis (2-1) in the second half and built a 15-point lead before holding on.
The Billikens trailed 59-44 with 4:48 left, but cut the lead to 61-53 on a jumper by Kevin Lisch with 1:22 to go. Eckerle’s 3-pointer with 1:10 remaining drew them within 63-56, but Pittsburgh made 8 of 10 free throws down the stretch to secure the victory.
“The defense was good on our part and we made our free throws in the second half,” Dixon said.
Pittsburgh, which led at halftime 27-21, finished 9-for-18 from the line after starting the game 1-for-8.
Lisch led Saint Louis with 13 points. Barry Eberhardt added 12 and Luke Meyer had 10.
Majerus, most recently an ESPN college basketball analyst who left Utah at midseason during 2003-04 after the Utes had built a 15-5 record, is coaching in his 21st year. He is 422-147 during stops at Marquette, Ball State and Utah, the seventh-best record among active coaches.