Pitt coach Jamie Dixon is encouraging his players to take more chances defensively, hoping more hands in the passing lanes at one end of the court equals layups at the other.
Consider the Panthers quick studies.
Talib Zanna scored a career-high 20 points, Tray Woodall added 14 points and six assists and Pitt had little trouble racing past Mount St. Mary’s 80-48 on Friday night in the season opener for both teams.
The Panthers turned 16 Mountaineer turnovers into 24 points, one of the big reasons Pitt set a school record for shooting. The Panthers made 71 percent of their shots (34 of 48), most of them easy baskets at the rim.
“We didn’t want to settle for jump shots,” Woodall said. “We knew we could get layups. Once we got them early, we knew we could get them at the end.”
Pitt improved to 10-0 in openers under Dixon, smothering Mount St. Mary’s over the game’s final 30 minutes.
Highly touted freshmen Steven Adams and James Robinson looked right at home in their first collegiate games. Adams had eight points, eight rebounds and four blocks while Robinson scored six points and turned it over just once in 29 minutes.
“They both played well, I’m not surprised,” Dixon said. “They’re mature beyond freshmen years and they’re going to keep getting better and better.”
Xavier Owens led the Mountaineers with 15 points and Rashad Whack added 11 but Mount St. Mary’s couldn’t keep up with the bigger, deeper Panthers.
Pitt outscored Mount St. Mary’s 58-14 in the paint and shut the Mountaineers down following a slow start. Mount St. Mary’s hit six 3-pointers in the first eight minutes, taking a brief 18-17 lead and getting Dixon so angry he called timeout.
The Panthers quickly tightened up. After starting 6 of 8 from 3-point range, Mount St. Mary’s finished just 9 of 23 from behind the arc.
“I don’t think we did anything different per se, but we tried to do better,” Dixon said. “I think maybe we were surprised at how quick and how deep they shot it.”
Pitt shouldn’t have been surprised. The Mountaineers are coached by Jamion Christian. The 30-year-old is the third-youngest coach in Division I and spent last season as an assistant to VCU coach Shaka Smart.
Christian wants to create his own version of the pressing, 3-point shooting, Goliath-slaying program Smart has put together with the Rams. For a bit, the rebuilding Mountaineers looked like VCU-lite.
“I was really pleased with our guys, how they played the first 11 minutes,” Christian said. “It’s a small microcosm of how we’re going to play the rest of the year.”
Just not the rest of the night. Eventually, the Mountaineers cooled off.
Pitt never did.
The Panthers were nearly flawless offensively during the first half, shooting 75 percent (18 of 24) from the field, many of them lay-ups off baskets in transition or steals.
They were almost as good in the second. Getting into the lane whenever they wanted, the Panthers pounded the Mountaineers with the kind of crisp offensive execution that hardly made it look like they were playing in the season opener.
Pitt’s field goal percentage broke the school record of 69.8 set against George Washington in 1980.
“The guys did a pretty good job passing the ball,” Zanna said. “We came out focused and just ready to go.”
The Panthers eventually took a 42-27 lead at the break then broke it open with a 12-0 burst to start the second half. By the time a Kristian Krajina dunk ended the run, Pitt was in front 54-29.
“They’re so big on the inside, we wanted to pressure them and make them drive to the basket,” Christian said of the Panthers. We didn’t defend the way we should or the way we could.”
The Panthers are looking for redemption in their final season in the Big East before heading to the ACC. Pitt is coming off a dismal 2011-12 campaign in which it missed the NCAA tournament for the first time under Dixon.
The influx of Adams, Robinson and Central Michigan transfer Trey Zeigler should give the Panthers the depth they lacked last season, when they fell apart after Woodall missed a significant amount of time due to an abdominal injury.
Robinson played so well in early practices he actually beat Zeigler out of a starting job. Robinson had six points and just one turnover in 29 minutes while Zeigler came on late to finish with 11.
Pitt guard Cam Wright scored eight points in 17 minutes just hours after his father Kevin died following a lengthy bout with brain cancer.
“It’s been an unbelievably tough time for the family (but) he said he wanted to play,” Dixon said.
“It was tough. Players rallied around him.”
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