MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Pitt didn’t travel very far to get to Robert Morris University on Tuesday night, taking less than an hour to traverse the snow-covered Parkway West and help the Colonials enter their new home, the UPMC Events Center.
Robert Morris isn’t exactly in the upper echelon of Pitt’s potential opponents, either. After Pitt’s 71-57 victory, they’ve now won 31 straight games against their local low-major foe.
But make no mistake, Pitt’s win on Tuesday night was a road win in the truest sense of the term and that’s something Pitt hasn’t experienced in quite some time.
In fact, none of the current Panthers owned a road victory in a blue and gold uniform entering Tuesday night’s contest. Jeff Capel’s squad didn’t win a single game in another team’s gym in his first season and Kevin Stallings’ disastrous final season included an 0-13 mark on opposing floors, including a season-opening loss at Navy.
So when Robert Morris went on an 18-0 run to take an 11-point lead early in the first half, the Colonial Crazies started jumping around, it looked for a moment like Bobby Mo was going to open its new building with the biggest of upsets.
But Pitt was prepared to weather the storm. The young, inexperienced Panthers team came out of its shell thanks to stellar defense by Terrell brown inside and the slashing drives to the rim of sophomore guard Trey McGowens.
There’s no question that the Panthers are the more-talented basketball team. But they took a step forward by proving it under adverse conditions.
“It was loud,” McGowens said after the game. “Coach told us they were going to be on top of us. Once you got there, it wasn’t a big adjustment. You just had to hear it and get used to it.”
“We knew it was going to be a hostile environment,” added sophomore guard Au’Diese Toney. “It was going to be loud, rowdy. The team, they just opened up a 4,000-seat arena. We just new it was going to be packed.”
It’s obviously not the same as going into Cameron Indoor Stadium or playing in front of 35,000 at the Carrier Dome. But Capel said that what it takes to win on the road is a lesson that can transfer forward.
“This was big for us,” Capel said. “I spoke to our guys. If I’m correct, it was February 8, 2017 was the last time Pitt won a true road game. So this game provides us with an opportunity to do that. They had a great environment, a hostile crowd, very passionate. When they made their 15-0 run, it was loud. We could have folded. But I’m proud that we stepped up and made some plays and I think this will help us as we go forward.”
Of course, Pitt got itself into that situation by playing some pretty bad basketball after starting the game on a 7-0 run.
“We got out to a very good start,” Capel said. “From the under-16 timeout to the under-12 timeout, we were really bad. During that stretch, we had four straight turnovers and just panicked a little bit.”
But bad stretches of play, even against an inferior opponent, are part of the game. The young Panthers needed to learn how to deal with that adversity and respond.
“[Capel] just told us to settle down,” McGowens said. “They had their run. Now let’s have our run. After that, we never looked back.”
During the waning moments of the game, as the fans started to file out of their red and blue seats, the Panthers took in the experience of being the ones to silent a visiting crowd for the first time.
“It feels great, because it’s hard to win on the road,” Toney said. “We pulled through and came out with the W.”
TREY TO THE RIM
The big change for the Panthers from Saturday’s embarrassing loss to Nicholls State at home to the relatively comfortable second half against the Colonials was the play of McGowens.
Against Robert Morris, Pitt got McGowens going downhill in the lane and the young guard was able to fight through contact to get to the rim at level unseen so far this season.
“I just feel like I was in my own head,” McGowens said. “When we came back after the Nicholls State loss, coach had some words and it was the truth. We just had to come back, bounce back and forget about it.”
McGowens also seems to be seeing the potential he has as a distributor in that arrangement, as well. Not every drive down the lane needs to result in a foul or a wild layup attempt. If the opposing teams are helping on him, that means someone else is open, whether its Brown under the basket or another guard on the perimeter like Toney (11 points) or Ryan Murphy (10 points).
“Make them guard you, so that it opens up some other things for your other teammates,” McGowens explained. “Especially if Murph is in the corner, they can’t really help. We kept going that way on the pick and roll, because if they help, Murph is going to have a wide open 3.
“I tried to slow down and keep my head up. They last two games, I was trying to force it instead of letting it come to me.”
BEING A BULLY
As a team, it took Pitt a little while, but they finally found a game that suited what they were in comparison to the Colonials: bigger.
Whether it was Brown or one of the athletic guards, Pitt found a way to finish over and through contact, box out and gang rebound and block shots with ease. That’s not something they’re always going to be able to do against ACC opponents.
But it’s a playing style that can help them dominate lesser-tier teams, something they’ve struggled with at times over the last two years.
“Tonight was just different, because usually with the teams in the conference we play, it’s hard to get contact and then finish at the rim,” Toney said. “Tonight, this team didn’t have enough shot blockers or seven footers down there, so we could get off the rim quicker than usual.”
Having the mental maturity to know when they can and when they can’t take advantage of a physical disparity and being able to quickly flip that switch is something the Panthers are still working on, but they showed they know how to change their style of play to what fits an opponent on Tuesday.
BIG PICTURE WIN
Robert Morris’ season won’t hinge on their loss to the Panthers. In fact, very little that happens between now and when Northeast Conference play starts really matters to the Colonials from a wins and losses perspective.
What makes a good season at RMU is winning the NEC tournament and earning an NCAA Tournament berth, and all of that still lies ahead of the Colonials.
But while losing the game, Robert Morris might’ve earned the biggest win possible: a capacity crowd that saw exactly what UPMC Events Center is going to look and sound like on the verge of an upset: a bright, vibrant venues with the kind of life and energy that can sustain a program.
From the players entering through the student section to the postgame fireworks, the always fraught process of doing everything for the first time seemed well-rehearsed and went off with nary a hitch.
That’s something everyone at RMU should be proud of and it should give plenty of hope for more wins in the new house in the future.