PITTSBURGH (AP)—Pittsburgh is becoming an every-season fixture in the Top 25 and the Big East tournament championship game, yet doesn’t turn out NBA players like some of the elite-level programs do.
Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez is certain that is about to change.
Sam Young and DeJuan Blair carried Pittsburgh’s offense until its backcourt finally got going early in the second half, and the 20th-ranked Panthers kept Seton Hall winless in the Big East with an 84-70 victory on Saturday.
Young scored 28 points and Blair, a 6-foot-7 freshman playing in his first conference home game, had 20 points and 14 rebounds. The Panthers (14-2, 2-1) never trailed but didn’t pull away until their guards started scoring and Seton Hall’s Brian Laing injured his right hip, allowing Pitt to take control while he was out.
“They are still one of the elite teams in the Big East—they (Blair and Young) look like NBA big guys,” Gonzalez said. “We had no answers for those guys. We just got outclassed inside.”
Laing had 15 points in the first half as the Pirates (10-6, 0-3) trailed 33-30. He went to the locker room after Young’s elbow caught his hip early in the second half. Laing sat out only a couple of minutes, but Pitt quickly took advantage of his absence to open its first double-digit lead at 45-35 on Young’s 3-pointer from the top of the key.
Laing, averaging a team-high 19.1 points, wasn’t the same after coming back, failing to score again—he ended with 17—while having several shots blocked or altered.
“It was a huge difference,” Gonzalez said. “We have to manufacture baskets without Brian Laing on the floor.”
Eugene Harvey scored 25 points but the Pirates, with only one starter taller than 6-foot-5, shot only 34.6 percent (24-of-69) while losing their 10th consecutive Big East road game. Their last conference road win was an upset of then-No. 8 Pitt on March 3, 2006.
Pitt knows what losing a key player can mean.
The Panthers are still adjusting without two starters, point guard Levance Fields (broken foot) and small forward Mike Cook (knee). The Panthers are 3-1 without Fields, who could return late in the season, and 3-2 without Cook, whose college career is over.
“I didn’t set any standards or expectations for the team, so we don’t feel limited due to our injuries,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “We thought our bench players were ready to play more minutes. … We’ve been calling Sam’s and DeJuan’s numbers more.”
Certainly a lot more than the Pirates would have liked.
Young’s 28 points were a career high, topping the 24 he had against North Carolina A&T on Nov. 10. Young, a 6-6 junior who has increased his scoring average from 7.2 a season ago to 18.5, made all four of his 3-point attempts and is 20-of-38 on 3s this season.
“Their defenders were a little shorter than I was, so I was able to shoot my jumper pretty easy,” Young said.
About the time Laing was leaving the game, Pitt was moving its offense outside after none of the three guards in its seven-man rotation scored until point guard Ronald Ramon’s basket with 4:12 remaining in the first half.
Ramon ended with 14 points, eight assists and only two turnovers and Keith Benjamin had three 3-pointers while scoring all 12 of his points in the second half. Pitt was only 3-of-9 on 3-pointers before halftime but was 8-of-11 after that while opening leads of as many as 17 points.
The injuries—freshman center Austin Wallace is also out for the season with a knee injury—have left Pitt with only nine scholarship players and only eight who have played more than a few minutes this season.
“Not many teams can absorb two losses like that and still be one of the better teams in the conference,” Gonzalez said of a Pitt program that, despite being ranked consistently since 2001 under coaches Ben Howland and Dixon, has yet to produce an NBA impact player. “I think Blair is one of the best freshmen big men I’ve seen in the conference. He’s a beast, a monster.”
Ramon’s added offense made a difference as Benjamin, coming off a 20-point game in a 79-66 win at South Florida, was limited to nine points until making three free throws in the final 12 seconds. Benjamin is averaging 15 points in five games since becoming a starter.
“We just take what we can get,” Benjamin said. “Sam and DeJuan were having an excellent game and, when they gave us more room on the outside, we were able to hit some shots.”