BY WILL GRAVES
Jamie Dixon can’t predict when the light will go on for one of his players. Sometimes it happens quickly. Other times it takes years, if it even happens at all.
For junior guard Cam Wright, the light isn’t just on. It’s in attention-grabbing neon, flashing non-stop.
Wright scored a career-high 20 points, including seven during a decisive second-half run as the Panthers pulled away from Duquesne 84-67 in the City Game on Saturday. Wright added five assists and five rebounds in 36 high-energy minutes as Pitt beat the crosstown rival dukes for the 13th straight time.
“I’ve been joking I should have played him more last year,” Dixon said. “He’s a better player. He’s in better shape. He’s a better shooter. He’s a junior. You hope they get better. We have a history of that and he has taken to that.”
Lamar Patterson chipped in 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists and Talib Zanna had 13 points and six rebounds as Pitt (7-0) shook loose over the final 15 minutes after being tested early by undermanned Duquesne, which suited up just nine scholarship players.
Ovie Soko led the Dukes (2-3) with 17 points but Duquesne couldn’t keep pace after taking a 44-41 lead early in the second half. Pitt put together a 15-1 run early in the second half to break it open. The Dukes made 9 of 18 3-pointers but shot just 18 of 35 (51 percent) from the free throw line.
“When you’re playing as good as a team as Pitt, you can’t leave points on the line,” said Soko, who made just 11 of 20 free throws. “You’ve got to make them pay. I think we started to go on a run if we would have made our free throws.”
Instead, it was the Panthers who did the running.
The Dukes opened the second half on a quick 9-2 run, capped by Tra’Vaughn White’s 3-pointer from the corner that gave them the lead barely 90 seconds into the second half, earning a quick timeout from Dixon.
White’s jumper appeared to get the Panthers’ attention, and they responded behind Wright. He scored seven points during the game-turning run, including a difficult layup in traffic in which he absorbed a blow to the ribs from Duquesne’s Darius Lewis.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a different player,” Wright said. “I just give a lot of credit to my teammates. They set me up a lot. I think they’re looking for me to shoot sometimes ... (and) you have to be aggressive. I’m definitely being more aggressive going to the basket.”
Josh Newkirk followed with a jumper, and Patterson converted a layup and the ensuing free throw off an inbounds play to make it 56-45. Duquesne never got closer than eight points the rest of the way as Pitt extended its dominance in the series between two schools located just 2 miles apart. Pitt has now won 32 of the last 35 meetings and all but one this millennium, with 11 of the last 13 victories coming by double digits.
Duquesne’s miserable day at the line helped. So did a message from Dixon to his player to get to the glass.
Pitt outrebounded Duquesne 45-31, including 26-13 in the second half to win going away despite making just 3 of 16 3-pointers.
“We got back and got doing what we do and finishing it off,” Dixon said. “We outrebounded them by a good margin. We really took care of the ball with 23 assists. I thought our passing and penetration was really good.”
Dixon feared a letdown after the Panthers romped to victory in the Progressive Legends Classic earlier in the week. Pitt beat Texas Tech and Stanford by an average of 21.5 points. Heading back home to play an underdog rival coming off 10 days’ rest, Dixon figured his team would have trouble responding.
He couldn’t have been more wrong. The Panthers used a quick 12-0 run to take control early, but the Dukes eventually settled down in what Jim Ferry calls a “measuring stick” game for his program.
Soko led the way. The UAB transfer looked rushed while missing a series of shots at the rim but once he found his footing, the Dukes took off.
Duquesne used a 22-7 surge midway through the first half to take the lead. Soko had little trouble getting whatever look he wanted no matter who the Panthers threw out to guard him. When pitted against Zanna, Soko broke down the bigger center off the dribble. When facing Michael Young or Jamel Artis, he used his strength to the lane.
Soko’s resiliency produced the kind of back and forth play the Panthers have largely avoided while sprinting to the eighth 6-0 start in the last 12 years. Pitt needed a dunk from Patterson and a putback by Artis to take a 39-35 lead at the break, the closest any opponent has been to the Panthers at the break all year.
It didn’t last. Playing without injured guard Micah Mason and freshman forwards Isaiah Watkins and Jordan Robinson, the Dukes were overwhelmed by Pitt’s size and relentlessness.
“We got worn down,” Ferry said. “(Pitt) is a good team, a physical team. They’ve got a lot of depth.”