NEWARK, N.J. — Pitt improved to 2-0 against major-conference opponents this season with a 75-66 victory over Penn State at the Prudential Center Saturday afternoon.
The Panthers took a 20-point lead into the halftime break thanks to some strong defensive play that resulted in the Nittany Lions shooting just 25.9 percent from the floor in the opening frame.
As has been the case in recent games, though, the Panthers couldn’t maintain that defensive effort for 40 minutes and Penn State rebounded to bring the game as close as five points in the second half before the Panthers finally pulled away.
SLOWING DOWN STATE
Penn State came into the game ranked No. 45 in adjusted tempo by KenPom.com, but Pitt was able to slow the Nittany Lions down considerably. They gave up just four fast break points and used a combination of the full-court 1-2-2 trap and a tough half-court defense to keep Penn State from speeding up the game.
“I thought our press was effective in terms of dictating tempo and keeping them out of a rhythm for the most part,” head coach Kevin Stallings. “Particularly in the first half, I thought it was disruptive and kind of had them in a way where when we got in the half-court defense, they were a little bit scattered and not an organized as they would have been otherwise.”
While Pitt did get a couple of turnovers from the full-court pressure, the purpose of it is mostly to slow down opposing offenses and get them out of sync. The young Nittany Lions, who started four underclassmen and three freshmen, were affected, particularly in the first half.
“What happens, especially with younger guys, is that you get a little big stagnant,” said Penn State head coach Pat Chambers. “You start to hold onto the ball too long, when you need to make a pop and throw long. You need to make a pop and attack their close-outs. I just felt like we did a better job of that in the second half.”
Pitt doesn’t have a lot of athletic guards in its rotation, but by using their delaying defense, they can keep teams from getting up and down quickly and taking advantage. North Carolina and Florida State are the only Atlantic Coast Conference teams that are currently running as quick of a tempo as the Nittany Lions. The ability to slow down such a quick team is a huge plus for Pitt.
YOUNG TO THE LINE
Michael Young scored 29 points, with 11 of them coming from the free-throw line on 14 shots. Young is an excelled free-throw shooter and has historically gotten a lot of his points by driving to the hoop and drawing fouls.
But over Pitt’s last two games, he had been to the line a combined nine times. The focus on getting to the rim did wonders for Young inside, while he was able to go 2 of 4 from 3-point range to keep defenders from sagging off him.
“I’m a good free-throw shooter and when I get to the line, I make them, especially down the stretch,” Young said. “That’s just something I wanted to get to, especially in the second half. I thought we had a little bit of a slow start, so I wanted to get to the free-throw line and get us going offensively.”
STILL SEARCHING FOR 40 MINUTES
Again, Stallings wasn’t satisfied with his team’s consistency of effort, especially on defense. After stifling the Lions in the first half, Pitt allowed Penn State to shoot 42.5 percent from the floor in the second half.
Part of that was the fact that Penn State had adapted to Pitt’s delaying press, but Stallings thinks that his team has the ability to extend their partial dominance into a complete-game effort. The team just hasn’t done that yet.
“Really good play on both ends in the first half. Second half, the offense play was probably good enough. The defensive play was not very good. … We’re a team that’s doing a really good job for portions of the game and halves of the game. Sometimes, maybe like today, we’re doing such a good job that we were almost able to put the game out of reach. … We’re still trying to find consistency and the kind of play we need throughout the 40 minute game.”
BIG SPOT, BIG SHOT
With the Nittany Lions charging in the second half, Pitt needed a stopper to get things heading back in the Panthers’ direction. That came in the form of Sheldon Jeter, who drilled a baseline 3-pointer to stop the run and give Pitt an eight-point lead back.
“Give Pitt a lot of credit. Their seniors made the plays when they had to, especially in the second half,” Chambers said. “We [get it to five] and Sheldon hits a big 3. Give him credit. Seniors make big plays.”
The shot was just part of a big game for Jeter, who was all over the scoresheet with eight points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and three assists. After big games the first two nights of the season, Jeter had cooled off in a bag way recently. He scored just 20 points in a six-game span, but it seems that Jeter has finally found his game. His big game against the Lions follows an 11-point performance against Buffalo on Wednesday.
“I was questioning myself a lot [during the slump],” Jeter admitted. “What got me through it was just teammates and coaching constantly reminding me that I’m a good player, reminding me that I’m a scorer and just feeding off everything else.”
Corey Manigualt’s two points came midway into the first half, breaking up a stretch of 88:58 in which the Panthers didn’t get a single point from a bench player other than Ryan Luther. That spanned over two entire games — from the first half of the Duquesne game, all the way through the Buffalo game and into the Penn State game.
The Panthers also got two points from backup point guard Justice Kithcart. Playing 18 minutes, Kithcart was mostly effective away from the ball and also moved the offense at times, but he just can’t get a shot to fall for the life of him. He missed three open looks before taking the ball to the rim and making an athletic contested layup while drawing a foul. It was a nice play from the freshman, but Stallings doesn’t want to limit him to a slashing role at this point.
“His jump shot hasn’t worked in the games yet,” Stallings said. “It works in practice sometimes. He made a nice play where he drove it in there and drew contact. If he’s on balance, if he has time and space and he’s not having to rush, that kind of things, I’m certainly not opposed to him taking jump shots. I’m not opposed to him making them, either. … He took the right shots. He’s a freshman. He’ll keep getting better and keep growing.”
Kithcart didn’t make his free-throw after the layup, something that’s plagued him all season. He’s now just 2-13 (15.4 percent) on the year from the charity stripe. His inability to make free throws has prevented Kithcart from earning more minutes, especially in late-game situations, where his ball skills could be an asset.