Created on Monday, 18 February 2013 03:09 Written by Nate Barnes / Senior Staff Writer
The Pitt men’s basketball team fell for a second time this season Saturday against the Marquette University Golden Eagles, suffering its worst loss of the year in the team’s worst defensive performance.
Like in Marquette’s overtime victory against Pitt at the Petersen Events Center in January, Vander Blue again led the Golden Eagles to a win over the Panthers, starting off red hot from the field and scoring 15 of his game-high 19 points in the first half of Marquette’s 79-69 triumph at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wis.
In terms of how Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon usually evaluates his team’s performance — based on holding opponents below 40-percent field-goal shooting and out-rebounding the opposition — Pitt failed miserably.
“There were three things we wanted to do,” Dixon said. “Hold them under 40-percent [shooting] defensively — we didn’t come close to that. We wanted to keep them off the free-throw line — we certainly didn’t come close to that. Then obviously the rebounding, we got out-rebounded, so simply put, the 10-point loss is really pretty easy to see.”
No. 16 Pitt (20-6, 8-5 Big East) now resides 1 1/2 games back from a leading group of Big East teams in the conference standings, which now includes No. 18 Marquette (18-6, 9-3 Big East), No. 15 Georgetown and No. 6 Syracuse. A win Saturday might have thrown Pitt’s name into heavier contention for a Big East regular-season championship, but two losses to Marquette alone will prove difficult to surmount as the Panthers play their final five games.
Pitt held strong with Marquette in the early going, but eventually the Golden Eagles’ incredible shooting percentage and advantage on the glass allowed them to pull away from Pitt and own a double-digit lead at the half. The lead came after a 9-2 run by Marquette to close the first half, giving Coach Buzz Williams’ side a 42-29 lead.
In the second half, Marquette led Pitt by as many 17 points and fought off each attempt the Panthers made to claw back into the game. When Pitt chipped its deficit back down to 13 or 14 points, Marquette seemed to have an answer each time to push the lead back up to 15 points and keep the Panthers from ever threatening to complete a comeback.
As a result, Marquette’s lead never saw itself fall into single digits in the second half, and Pitt’s 10-point deficit on the final box score was the closest the Panthers came to matching Marquette in the entire second half.
A bright spot for Pitt was redshirt junior small forward Lamar Patterson, who had a hot start from the field. Patterson finished with 19 points, shooting 7-for-12 from the field. Senior point guard Tray Woodall hit his average in the game, scoring 10 points while dishing out a game-high eight assists.
But while Pitt received superb play from its perimeter players, the area in which Pitt found little-to-no success was close to the basket, where the Panthers usually have an advantage. Marquette forwards Jamil Wilson, Davante Gardner and Chris Otule dominated the Panthers’ big men for nearly every one of the 40 minutes played Saturday.
In contrast to the play of Pitt’s Steven Adams, Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna, Marquette’s forwards held a heavy hand in the 31-23 rebounding advantage Marquette owned. Another area in which Pitt usually excels, the bench play, was also countered by Marquette, with Williams’ reserves scoring 39 points to the 26 points Pitt’s second unit recorded.
After only its second defeat in nine games, Pitt finds itself playing a key game against a team in the exact same spot as the Panthers in the Big East standings: No. 21 Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish will enter the Petersen Events Center Monday night at 7 p.m. with a vendetta of their own after the Providence College Friars blew them out at the Dunkin Donuts Center on Saturday.
Notre Dame owns identical overall and conference records to Pitt, and the Panthers will find themselves playing yet another game with heavy implications in how the Big East tournament bracket shapes up when it starts in less than a month.
Notre Dame plays very similarly to Pitt in that coach Mike Brey’s squad shares the ball on offense and shoots a high percentage from the field. The Fighting Irish’s 17.9 assists per game ranks second in the nation, and their 48-percent shooting clip ranks No. 16 among all teams.
Junior guard Eric Atkins leads the Fighting Irish’s balanced attack and will be just another one of a long line of outstanding backcourt players Pitt has faced this season. Atkins averages 11.7 points per game and a team-high 5.9 assists.
Right behind him is another stellar guard, junior Jerian Grant, who puts up 13 points and 5.8 assists per game. Anchoring the Irish is senior center Jack Cooley, who averages a double-double with 14.6 points and a conference-leading 11.2 rebounds per game.
The one area Pitt should be able to exploit — the area in which Notre Dame is most different from the Panthers — is the Fighting Irish’s defense. While Pitt owns the nation’s No. 8-ranked scoring defense, Notre Dame sits below more than 100 teams when it comes to defense, allowing 64.7 points per game.