PITTSBURGH (AP)—Pittsburgh knew there would be an adjustment period after losing two key starters in as many games, and the 13th-ranked Panthers experienced exactly that against the last non-conference team they will play this season.
At least for 20 minutes they did.
Keith Benjamin and Tyrell Biggs, playing much more with starters Levance Fields and Mike Cook out, led a second-half comeback and the Panthers withstood Lafayette’s 3-point shooting show for a 96-75 victory Wednesday night.
Benjamin scored 20 points and Biggs and Sam Young both had 19 to help the Panthers (12-1) bounce back from an 80-55 loss at No. 20 Dayton on Saturday and overcome Lafayette’s 17 3-pointers, a record for a Pitt opponent.
“This is definitely what I envisioned, being able to step up and help this team,” said Benjamin, a new starter at guard who played 32 minutes, nearly twice his previous average. “I hope I can keep it up.”
Gilbert Brown, Pitt’s other new regular, scored 10 points and Ronald Ramon, shifted to point guard with Fields out, had 11 points and 10 assists. Ramon, playing despite a torn labrum in his shoulder, was 3-for-3 on 3-pointers as Pitt went 8-of-9 beyond the arc in the second half—a pace even the deep-shooting Leopards couldn’t match.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon was clearly pleased with how his team responded, not only to the injury losses but a 41-39 halftime deficit. He smiled frequently, praised every player by name who got into the game and said of the Panthers’ Big East opener Sunday at No. 17 Villanova, “We’re ready to go.”
The Panthers quickly settled down once the second half started, outscoring the Leopards 57-34 the rest of the way while leaning themselves on the 3-pointer to overcome Matt Betley’s 20 points and 6-of-6 shooting on 3s. Bilal Abdullah added 14 points for Lafayette (8-5).
“We’ve had to become a new team that last several days … and I think we’ve responded really well,” Dixon said. “This is an opportunity for these guys (the new starters) to get better and it will help us down the road. What happened to us is rare, to lose two guys like that, but we’re not making excuses.”
Using a second reconfigured lineup in as many games because of the injuries, the Panthers looked unsettled at times on offense and defense and frequently were a step slow in defending whenever Lafayette took one of its 31 3-pointers.
“We felt Levance Fields was the heart of their team and we knew it was a big loss for them,” Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon said. “But when they started making shots, they got their confidence going.”
The Leopards from the Patriot League hit seven of their first nine 3-point attempts and, at least briefly, flirted with dealing Pitt its first non-conference home loss since Bucknell’s 69-66 upset three years ago to the night. That remains the Panthers’ only loss in their last 78 home games against non-Big East opponents.
“We knew they were going to be shooting 30-footers and they couldn’t keep it up,” Benjamin said. Ramon said the Panthers didn’t panic and simply “had to stay patient.”
Pitt got 3-pointers from Benjamin and Ramon to quickly open a 56-49 lead, and the Leopards never made another push despite making six more 3-pointers after halftime. They were 11-of-18 beyond the arc in the first half.
The previous record for opponent 3-pointers against Pitt was 14, accomplished by Notre Dame in losses to the Panthers in 2005 and 2006.
Lafayette fell to 3-37 against ranked opponents and still hasn’t beaten a Top 25 team since a 77-70 win over Rutgers on Dec. 2, 1978. The Leopards are 3-3 with two games remaining on an eight-game road trip that doesn’t end until Jan. 9 at Princeton.
Fields, Pitt’s second leading scorer until breaking his left foot against Dayton, is expected to be out about two months but could return late in the season. Cook badly tore up a knee during Pitt’s overtime win over then-No. 6 Duke on Dec. 20 and his college career is over.
“We got caught off-guard with Levance’s injury,” Benjamin said. “But we have to keep going.”