MBB Recap: Panthers cruise to win over ‘Cats

Kyle Scudilla

It’s no secret that Jay Wright and the coaching staff have been looking for a better defensive effort out of their team recently, after being burned for 80 points against Rutgers and 90 points against Notre Dame in back-to-back losses. The ‘Cats needed a win last night to keep from getting buried even deeper in the crowded Big East.

Winning at Pittsburgh, of course, is no easy task. The Panthers entered last night’s game with a 91-9 mark at the Petersen Events Center since it opened in 2002.

The Wildcats did step up defensively but couldn’t stop the bleeding. The defense forced 17 turnovers and held the No. 18 Panthers (17-4, 5-3 Big East) under 70 points, but the ‘Cats (13-6, 3-5 Big East) looked lost on offense and struggled mightily from the field in a 69-57 loss.

Despite shooting an ice-cold 27 percent from the floor in the first half, the ‘Cats got a quick scoring burst led by Scottie Reynolds and Antonio Peña after halftime and grabbed a 38-37 lead six-and-a-half minutes into the second half. ‘Nova made six of its first nine shots after the break but quickly reverted back to its stagnant offensive ways, shooting just 36.5 percent for the game.

Just as the Wildcats began missing shots, Pittsburgh shook an early second-half drought to begin picking up its scoring pace. The Panthers stopped any chance Villanova had of escaping with a road win over a ranked opponent with a 22-3 run over a nine-minute span to seal the Wildcats’ third straight loss.

‘Nova tried numerous times to hit from beyond the arc to stop the Panthers’ run but drew nothing but iron, finishing 4-for-16 from the 3-point range. During the three-game losing streak, the ‘Cats have shot a frigid 29.7 percent (11-for-37) from outside.

Not being able to get much scoring from the perimeter, the Wildcats tried their hands at getting buckets in the paint, but Sam Young and the Pitt frontcourt blocked eight shots and disrupted plenty more. Peña, the team’s best post scoring option of as of late, was held to just 4-for-15 shooting after leading the ‘Cats in scoring against Notre Dame.

Meanwhile, Pitt got its offense going by doing exactly what ‘Nova couldn’t: converting easy baskets and getting to the free-throw line. Pitt junior forward Tyrell Biggs, who averages 6.2 points per game, scored seven points on layups and free throws alone during the second-half run.

Once the easy buckets started coming inside the paint and from the charity stripe, perimeter shots from Young and Ronald Ramon began falling. Young put an exclamation point on the run by emphatically blocking a 3-point attempt by Corey Stokes, grabbing the loose ball and slamming it home with his right hand while drawing a foul.

‘Nova’s ephemeral lead had all of a sudden become a 59-41 Pitt advantage.

Unlike the Wildcats’ early season win over Pitt at the Pavilion, there were no late-game heroics to be seen. Malcolm Grant, who scored a team-high 22 points against the Panthers three weeks ago, played just eight minutes off the bench.

Reynolds overcame a slow start from the field to make nine of his 15 shots and finish with a game-high 26 points. The sophomore also improved from beyond the arc, knocking down three of his seven 3-point shots after shooting just 1-for-14 from deep in the Wildcats’ last two games.

Scottie’s teammates, however, struggled to pick up the scoring slack when the star guard wasn’t scoring. Corey Fisher went 2-for-10 from the field, which only augmented his recent shooting woes. The freshman is shooting 12-for-38 (31.6 percent) over his last five games.

Last night did mark the return of Casiem Drummond to the Wildcats’ lineup. The 6-foot-10-inch center had missed nine of ‘Nova’s last 10 games with a stress fracture in his right foot but played seven minutes off the bench against Pitt.

Recent concerns over the health of Shane Clark still made the frontcourt a bit thin despite the return of Drummond. The team has been looking into Clark’s heightened sense of fatigue, even sending him to a doctor to diagnose the source of his physical ailments. Meanwhile, the team is increasingly relying on Dante Cunningham to hold down the fort defensively inside, and as a result, the junior has struggled with foul trouble as of late.

While the status of some of its key rotation players are in doubt, one thing is certain: the Wildcats need to snap their downward trend quickly if they’re going to keep their heads above water in the competitive Big East.

‘Nova will look to pick up the pieces once again in a crucial game against Syracuse at the Wachovia Center. The ‘Cats defeated the Orange two weeks ago but can’t settle for a split, as they did with Pittsburgh, if they are to stop from slipping further behind their formidable Big East foes.