A double-digit lead gone, another home win slipping away, Pitt appeared on the verge of a season-changing collapse.
Instead, the quickly maturing Panthers showed how far they’ve come.
Tray Woodall and James Robinson knocked down consecutive 3-pointers to halt a Connecticut rally and Pitt pulled away late for a 69-61 win over the Huskies on Saturday.
“In the games we lost, we let it go at the end,” forward Lamar Patterson said. “Today, it showed that things have changed. We fought through and got the victory.”
A victory the Panthers (15-4, 3-3 Big East) needed to restore a little order at the Petersen Events Center. Pitt came in 0-2 in conference play at the Zoo, traditionally one of the toughest venues in the country since it opened over a decade ago.
The Huskies (12-5, 2-3) nearly dropped the Panthers to 0-3 at home after erasing a 14-point deficit. UConn tied the game twice in the final 5 minutes. Twice Pitt responded.
“We were 0-2 at home in the Big East (and) we’re not known for losing here,” said Patterson, who led the Panthers with 14 points. “It’s something to build off of.”
Woodall added 13 points and six assists and Robinson chipped in with 12 points, including a pivotal 3-pointer from the corner with 3:43 left after UConn knotted the game at 58.
Pitt senior center Dante Taylor actually had a wide-open layup on the play but instead threw the ball out to Robinson, and the freshman calmly drained the shot to give the Panthers the lead for good.
“I trusted in James and passed it to him to hit the 3,” Taylor said. “We just trusted each other. We all know that we all can make plays and that we’re all good players. That trust is big for us.”
Ryan Boatright led the Huskies with 20 points and Omar Calhoun added 14 but couldn’t stop UConn from dropping its second straight.
“We’ve got to play for 40 minutes and I thought we played for 20,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “You can’t do that in the Big East.”
It’s a lesson the Panthers painfully learned earlier in the season in home losses to Marquette and Cincinnati. Pitt struggled to put together two good halves in both games. That doesn’t appear to be a problem at the moment. The Panthers reeled off the final 15 points to win at Villanova on Wednesday and followed it up by outscoring UConn 11-3 over the final 4 minutes.
“We’re just getting better,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “We haven’t won all the games we’ve wanted to win, but we’re getting where we need to be.”
The Panthers made 12 of 15 free throws (80 percent) in the second half and didn’t panic when the Huskies used a 22-8 burst to turn a 47-33 deficit into a tie game.
“Against Villanova we made big strides, played good defense,” Patterson said. “I think that momentum definitely carried over and we did what we had to do.”
The final regular-season meeting of two of the Big East’s winningest programs hardly resembled the gritty tug-of-wars that typically happen when Pitt and UConn meet. The two schools, who have combined for 12 regular-season or conference tournament titles over the last dozen years, are struggling to find a place in the middle of the Big East pack.
The Huskies are still finding their way under Ollie, tasked with replacing Hall-of-Fame coach Jim Calhoun.
UConn led No. 1 Louisville by six at the half last Monday, only to collapse in the final 20 minutes of a 15-point loss. Five days later, the Huskies still couldn’t shake out of their funk. Pitt dominated for long stretches in the first half despite having Woodall dealing with foul trouble.
The Panthers led by just three when Woodall went to the bench after just six minutes. They led by four when he returned with 8:27 to go in the half and Pitt was off to the races. The Panthers went on a 16-7 run to take a 35-22 lead at the break.
Pitt’s advantage ballooned to 14 before UConn got going behind Boatright and Calhoun. The Panthers couldn’t seem to find anyone to stay in front of Boatright as he attacked the rim, and when Pitt collapsed its defense, Boatright kicked it out to Calhoun for a 3.
The Huskies needed Calhoun to contribute with guard Shabazz Napier limited by a shoulder injury that made it difficult for him to dribble with his left hand. Napier finished with eight points on 2-of-7 shooting in 34 minutes.
“As anyone could tell, he wasn’t himself,” Boatright said. “We need to get him healthy as soon as possible.”
Even with Napier hobbled, UConn got all the way back on a steal and dunk by Niels Giffey, who crashed onto his back after letting go of the rim. Moments later, Woodall was in the corner knocking down a wide-open 3-pointer while Ollie shouted “Nooo!” as the ball left Woodall’s hand.
Boatright followed with a difficult layup and drew the foul. He made the free throw to knot things up again, but Robinson calmly hit a 3-pointer from almost the same spot that Woodall did and the Panthers survived.