PITTSBURGH (AP)—The game started late—and, for the second time in four days, so did top-ranked Pittsburgh.
Tyrell Biggs was Pitt’s leading scorer the first time in his career with 16 points, and the Panthers struggled early for the second time in as many games since reaching No. 1 before pulling away to beat South Florida 75-62 on Wednesday night.
“Teams are going to play us tough,” said point guard Levance Fields, who had 11 points and 13 assists. “Everybody expects us to win by 20 or 30 points, but the (Big East) conference just isn’t like that.”
Sam Young scored 14 points and DeJuan Blair had 13 points and 18 rebounds to help Pittsburgh (16-0, 4-0) achieve the third-best start in school history. The 1927-28 team went 21-0 and coach Jamie Dixon’s 2003-04 team was 18-0 during his first season.
The start was delayed 20 minutes by a rush-hour snowstorm that clogged city streets and caused South Florida’s bus and the game officials to arrive late. Dixon got within two blocks of the Petersen Events Center, sat for 30 minutes and finally parked because of the standstill traffic.
“We looked a little laid back—no more of them (late starts),” Blair said, smiling. “You’ve got to get here on time or something. They came out shooting good and our defense was sluggish.”
The Panthers did much the same thing against St. John’s on Sunday, leading 41-36 at halftime before going on to win 90-67.
With Blair constantly helping them get second-chance points, the Panthers shot 29-of-59 (49.2 percent)—10-of-18 (55.6 percent) from 3-point range after they came in shooting 34.1 percent. Blair, the nation’s leading offensive rebounder, has 50 rebounds in his last three games—an average of more than 16 per game.
“I’ve been waiting for us to get that going, the 3-point shooting,” Dixon said. “We’re not going to lead the nation in it, but we’re getting better.”
Dominique Jones and Augustus Gilchrist scored 22 points each and Chris Howard had 13 for South Florida (6-10, 1-3), which repeatedly had trouble getting more than one shot on any possession while being outrebounded 37-23.
The Bulls, playing a No. 1 team for the third time in school history, might have gotten a burst of confidence from an 80-58 win at DePaul on Saturday—only their second Big East road win. But they couldn’t sustain several comebacks and finally fell behind by as many as 17.
“They taught a lesson in how to rebound,” coach Stan Heath said. “We would get a defensive stop, you’d think we were in good shape, but Blair would go get it.”
South Florida’s other games against No. 1 teams were a 75-39 loss to North Carolina on Dec. 12, 1981, and an 89-72 loss to Cincinnati on Jan. 29, 2000. The Bulls have lost 24 consecutive road games against ranked teams.
Pitt plays its next five games against teams that are or recently were nationally ranked, starting Saturday at No. 20 Louisville. The Panthers didn’t figure to have much trouble against South Florida, which is 8-46 in Big East play, 2-25 on the road.
But the Bulls hit a succession of off-balance and tough-angle shots to rally from deficits of 7-0, 16-7 and 30-22 to keep the game close, and trailed only 41-39 early in the second half—causing a few nervous fans in the late-arriving crowd of 12,508 to wonder when the real Panthers would show up.
That happened when Pitt went on a 15-4 run to stretch a 47-44 lead into a more comfortable 62-48 advantage with 8:51 remaining. Fields hit a 3-pointer with 15:18 remaining to make it 50-44 and Biggs scored ahead of Brad Wanamaker’s 3-pointer that gave Pitt its first double-digit lead at 55-44. Young’s 3 pushed it to 60-47.
Biggs’ career high was 19 points last season, but he wasn’t the leading scorer in that game.
“Is that right?” Biggs, a 6-foot-8 senior, said of his first team-leading performance. “Well, that’s good.”
Among those finally reaching the arena was Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes, a former Ohio State player who sat in the student section and wore an “Oakland Zoo” T-shirt, like the 1,500 students who ring the courtside section for each game.