The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


January 11, 2013

Pitt looks to continue defensive effort

PITTSBURGH — Durand Johnson has only been at Pitt a little over a year. Yet the redshirt freshman forward is a quick study on how the Panthers like to play.

And getting pushed around by the likes of Cincinnati and Rutgers is not part of the brand coach Jamie Dixon has built over the last decade.

That’s why Dixon didn’t need to give any table-flipping speeches after a stunning 67-62 upset loss to the Scarlet Knights last weekend. The Panthers knew what they needed to do in a pivotal game against No. 19 Georgetown on Tuesday night. They needed to play like Pitt.

“We just feel like enough was enough,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to get back to a normal Pitt team and get after teams and not let teams get after us and put us on our heels.”

Consider it done.

Harassing the Hoyas on defense at one end of the floor and making good decisions at the other, the Panthers crushed Georgetown 73-45. It’s the kind of cathartic victory Pitt (13-3, 1-2 Big East) believes could turn the season around.

Center Dante Taylor his team’s 40 minutes of dominance to a switch being flipped.

The key now is making sure the light that came on stays on starting Saturday against Marquette (11-3, 2-0).

“We’ve got to be aggressive and move on,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to get after every team.”

Something the Panthers didn’t do during losses to Michigan, Cincinnati and Rutgers. Pitt was too tentative too often for Dixon’s liking. To send a message it was time to start toughening up, Dixon swallowed his whistle at practice and told his players to play through contact.

It worked.

The Panthers forced Georgetown into 17 turnovers, outrebounded the Hoyas by seven and shot 55 percent from the floor. The result was the second-biggest Big East road victory of Dixon’s tenure.

Typically not one to linger over a win, Dixon let his players enjoy it for a day. Pitt returned from Washington, D.C., at 5 a.m. Wednesday and had the day off. Back in film session on Thursday, Dixon decided to highlight the good things his club did rather than harp on the negative. He believes the positive reinforcement will pay off.

“We’ve looked at film and why we didn’t do things well,” Dixon said. “I wanted to show them why we did things well.”

Starting with pace. Pitt appeared baffled when faced with zone defenses early in the season. Not so much anymore. Guards Tray Woodall and James Robinson did a solid job of keeping the tempo up and knew when to get the ball to the right people at the right time. They combined for 11 assists and just two turnovers and were helped by the continued maturation of Johnson.

The athletic 6-foot-6 small forward is starting to get a firm grasp of his role after spending early portions of the season watching his playing time fluctuate wildly. Worrying about defense and rebounding has led to an uptick in his minutes recently, and he’s proven he’s not afraid to be assertive when he has the ball in his hands.

Johnson shot – and made – a 3-pointer on his first touch against the Hoyas just seconds after entering the game. He knocked down another one later in the game as Pitt took control early and did not let up, something that had been a problem earlier in the year.

“I just try to stay ready,” Johnson said. “I feel my role is the energy guy, come in and play defense and on offense I feel like it’s going to come, just got to stay patient.”

Something that’s a virtue at Pitt. The Panthers have 10 players on the roster, and Dixon likes to play all 10 extensively. That’s allowed Taylor to stay fresh and play at a high level more consistently when he’s on the floor. The effort level doesn’t always translate into points, but Dixon doesn’t think they have to for Taylor to be effective.

“The guys really respect him,” Dixon said of Taylor. “They want him to do well and I think he’s an unselfish player. I think that transfers to the other teammates ... he brings a lot of things like intensity and enthusiasm.”

The Panthers will need both against the Golden Eagles, who have won four straight including league wins over Connecticut and Georgetown. Both victories were close and Pitt has yet to beat a quality opponent in a tight game.

Consider it the next thing on the Panthers’ “to-do” list.

“There’s not many wins like (Georgetown),” Dixon said. “We’ve got to see how we respond to it.”

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