PITTSBURGH — Pitt hosted one of it’s most dangerous non-conference opponents in the hot-shooting Rice Owls on Saturday and ground out an 83-73 victory to improve to 9-2 on the season.
The Panthers got big performances from Jamel Artis (31 points) and Ryan Luther (20 points and seven rebounds) to lead the way.
The game was dictated by the defensive choices of both head coaches. After being lit up by Buffalo’s Nick Perkins and Penn State’s Mike Watkins the last two games, Pitt was determined not to let the same thing happen with Rice’s talented step-out forward Egor Koulechov.
“[Koulechov] was a focus,” Artis said. “I think we did a pretty good job of running him off the line. We made him take some difficult shots.”
The performance against Koulechov led Artis to say it was the team’s most complete defensive performance. With Koulechov held to 13, the Owls used a backcourt of Marcus Eavns and Marcus Jackson to combined for 39 points, but got just 21 points from the rest of the squad.
TAKING AWAY YOUNG
The Owls came into the game with a similar mindset in taking away an opposing forward, as Rice packed everything into the paint in an effort to shut down Young, Pitt’s leading scorer.
They were mostly successful, holding him to 12 points and causing him to turn the ball over five times — part of an 18-turnover night for the Panthers. But what the Owls weren’t counting on was Luther being able to take advantage of the added attention paid to Young.
“My teammates just did a good job of finding me,” Luther said. “Mike had a couple nice passes when they were double and triple-teaming him to me and Jamel and everyone else. We knew they were going to do that, so I was just trying to be ready. I got my shots.”
Luther’s big performance came just a few days after a conversation with head coach Kevin Stallings about being more assertive on the floor and not being afraid to take as many risks.
“I’ve been on him to be a little bit more of a Ryan Luther fan himself,” Stallings said. “Rare guy. I’ve got some guys that are really big fans of themselves. Ryan, I need him to be a little bit more of a fan of himself, a little bit more confident in who he is.”
What Stallings isn’t saying is that Luther hasn’t been given the offensive freedom to make a few mistakes in his offensive game in the past and that’s something that he’s having to coach out of him.
MORE MINUTES FOR LUTHER? Luther could be making a play for even more minutes than he usually gets as Pitt’s sixth man. Pitt doesn’t have much of a rotation, but Luther played just 14 minutes against Penn State. If he can become the type of more-assertive offensive player Stallings is asking him to be, it could mean a bigger role as the grind of the season starts to wear on Pitt’s heavily utilized seniors.
“He can put it on the floor and get to the rim,” Stallings said. “His teammates really, really believe in him.”
Luther’s development is critical for Stallings as the team turns the page from the 2016-17 season and those four seniors, as well. Luther, along with Cameron Johnson, will be counted on heavily next season.
TOO MANY TURNOVERS
The big blemish on Pitt’s night was the turnovers, and Stallings thought the Panthers got a bit stuck in their ways in attempting to force the ball into Young when there were other options available.
“I noticed some carelessness,” he said. “There were some charges. Charges are turnovers, too and we had three or four charges. We’re driving in there against it and they do a great job of staining in there and taking them. I think we proved in the game throughout the second half that if we just jeep the ball moving, we get really good shots.”
As Pitt got adjusted to the defensive pressure, their shooting percentage skyrocket. Of their 18 second-half field goal attempts, the Panthers made 14 for a ridiculous 77.8 percent success rate.