PITTSBURGH — After a hairy start to the 2016-17 season with a double-overtime win over Eastern Michigan Friday, the Panthers instead rolled over an inferior opponent Monday, trouncing Gardner-Webb, 99-80 at Petersen Events Center.
But head coach Kevin Stallings wasn’t necessarily impressed by the effort and focus of his staring unit, despite the lopsided final score.
The Bulldogs came into the game ranked No. 263 in KenPom.com’s ratings, so they aren’t exactly a quality opponent, but the Panthers did exactly what they were supposed to do against an inferior foe and dominated from the tip to the horn, trailing for just 34 seconds of the contest.
That wasn’t enough to satisfy Stallings.
“With due respect to Gardner-Webb, I thought we missed an opportunity to get better tonight in our intensity, our concentration and our focus,” Stallings said. “While we did do some really nice things offensively in terms of sharing the ball and moving it, guys shooting it into the goal, I think if you look at our defensive number, our turnover numbers and our foul shot numbers, it’s kind of indicative of a team that wasn’t really wired in to play.”
The Panthers allowed the Bulldogs to shoot 42.5 percent from the floor, committed 19 turnovers and were 16 of 25 from the free-throw line, all signs, at least to Stallings, that they were lacking the consistent effort that will be required to be successful when more difficult opponents come calling later in the week. The Panthers will face Southern Methodist on Thursday and either Michigan or Marquette on Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Occasionally sleepwalking through a game isn’t something new for this group of Panthers. Late last season, they dropped a pair of winnable games at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech that could have made a difference in tournament seed. They also played an infamously bad game against a worst-in-the-ACC Wake Forest team at home that went to double overtime before they finally prevailed. Stallings didn’t name names, but the implication was that seniors Jamel Artis, Chris Jones and Young need to give a better effort on an every day basis.
Stallings went on to say that he’s still learning about this team, and one of things he needs to learn is which buttons to push when he sees a subpar effort in practice as he did Sunday to prevent it from carrying over into a game.
“We’ll just address it and try to get it fixed,” he said. “These guys are good kids. They’ll respond.”
For just the second time in his career, senior power forward Michael Young did not start for the Panthers. Young was replaced in the starting lineup by junior Ryan Luther, but was the first player off the bench.
“It was just a kind of minor infraction,” Stallings said. “We treated it in a minor way. It’s over with and behind us. He started the second half.”
Missing the first shift didn’t stop Young from having a productive game, as Young finished with 18 points, tied for the team high, and seven rebounds. Victimized by seven turnovers against Eastern Michigan, Young protected the rock, keeping a zero next to his name in that column against Gardner-Webb.
GIVE IT A REST
With the Panthers playing three games this week, head coach Kevin Stallings gave some of his most important players something of a night off. Young played just 15 minutes, the fewest he played in a game since his freshman year. Luther played 20 minutes, Jamel Artis played 21 and Chris Jones played 23.
“I wanted to get some other guys some action tonight,” he said. “I was glad that we got a lead and were able to do it.”
After hitting just 24.2 percent of their 33 3-pointers against Eastern Michigan, Pitt made a massive improvement in that department, going 13 of 26 from long range against the Bulldogs. The chief producer was Cameron Johnson, who was 4 for 4 from beyond the arc as part of his 18 points, which tied with Young for the team high.
“I think we got a lot of shots in the flow of the offense,” Johnson said. “Facing a man-to-man, we were able to break them down and play inside out. I think we just got shots to go in earlier. We were kind of stagnant on offense on Friday playing against the zone. It can just have you swing the ball around on top of the key and shoot the three, which doesn’t turn out the best percentage.”
Freshman Corey Manigault made his Pitt debut, playing 11 minutes and scoring two points. Stallings had said he wants to utilize a nine-man rotation, and Manigault was outside of that on Friday, leading to speculation that he could be redshirted this season. But Stallings wanted to see what he had in the young forward, and he found out — to mixed reviews.
“There was some good and some bad,” Stallings said. “I’ve seen better in practice. I thought he got tired real fast and I thought that effected his play. He was OK — fine for his first action in a real game.”
6-foot-11 center Rozelle Nix also played his first game after redshirting the 2015-16 season. Nix entered late in the fourth quarter and played four minutes. He collected four rebounds and made a huge block. All of his boards resulted in big cheers from the crowd. It’s pretty clear they’ve settled in on a favorite late-game replacement.
“I think we enjoyed it a lot more than they did,” senior Sheldon Jeter said. “He’s someone that’s worked really hard to get on the court. We would have liked to get him some points, but that was a crazy block, right?”
While Jeter was happy for Nix, it wasn’t something he hand’t seen before.
“He got me once like that,” Jeter said. “I’m not too ashamed to admit it.”
Zach Smith, who also redshirted in 2015-16 after transferring from Pitt-Bradford, also made his Pitt debut in the waning minutes.