Pitt coach Jamie Dixon believes his team has the toughness required to get the program back to its usual spot among the Big East's elite. He might be right, but No. 14 Cincinnati gave the 24th-ranked Panthers a glimpse at how large the gap remains.
The Bearcats dominated the second half of a 70-61 victory on Monday in the conference opener for both teams, pestering Pitt into uncharacteristic mistakes at both ends of the floor.
"We got totally outplayed in the second half," Dixon said. "It's something that we usually don't do. Year after year we seem to come out in the second half and finish what we started. Give credit to Cincinnati."
Talib Zanna led Pitt (12-2, 0-1) with 16 points. Lamar Patterson had 13 points, four rebounds and four assists but the Panthers missed all 10 of their 3-point attempts as their eight-game winning streak ended with a thud.
The Bearcats outrebounded Pitt 20-11 after halftime and took control with a 14-2 run midway that left the Panthers flat-footed.
"We didn't necessarily have problems, we executed on defense," Pitt guard Cameron Wright said. "We needed to connect on the rebounds. Rebounds was a huge outcome of the game."
Cashmere Wright led Cincinnati (13-1, 1-0) with 18 points and Sean Kilpatrick added 16 as the Bearcats (13-1, 1-0) bounced back from a loss to New Mexico last Thursday by dominating Pitt over the final 20 minutes. Cincinnati trailed by as much as eight early but never panicked and seemed to get more comfortable as the game wore on.
"We try to put game pressure on you and win the game in the last 10 minutes," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "It was a tremendous effort by our guys on the defensive end."
Pitt had a chance to get within a point with 1:27 to play, but Tray Woodall missed the front end of a one-and-one and Cincinnati made its free throws the rest of the way. The Panthers 0-for-10 3-point performance was the first time they failed to make a 3-pointer in a game since March 12, 2009.
Cincinnati outrebounded the Panthers 37-32 for the game, including a pair of huge offensive boards with around 3 minutes left that allowed the Bearcats to drain the clock. Cincinnati turned the reprieves into David Nyarsuk's dunk that pushed its advantage to 62-55.
"It was a big-time play by the big man," Wright said.
Pitt, however, wasn't quite done. Zanna hit a layup and was fouled. He missed the ensuing free throw but Patterson slipped into the lane for the stickback to get Pitt within three. The Bearcats turned it over on the inbounds and Woodall went to the line after getting tackled by Cincinnati's Cheikh Mbodj.
Woodall, who had issues with foul trouble in the first half and the physical play by the Bearcats in the second, clanged his free throw and Kilpatrick grabbed the board. Cincinnati went 8 of 10 at the line over the final 70 seconds to put it away.
"It was a big game because we know it's hard to lose two games and stay where we wanted to be," Wright said. "In order to stay in those top-tier teams, we've got to win games on the road to show we're a big-time team."
It wasn't quite the start to their final Big East season Pitt envisioned. The Panthers were hoping to restore some luster to the program after a disappointing 2011-12 in which they missed the NCAA tournament.
It didn't happen against the Bearcats. Playing for the first time in eight days following a soft nonconference schedule that offered little resistance, Pitt looked rattled while trying to deal with Cincinnati's constantly swarming defense.
"After you have those long breaks, it's kind of hard to come back and play to your full potential," Wright said. "You get tired. You haven't played a game in so long, it's hard to come back and just go all out."
Maybe, though the Panthers looked comfortable while leading throughout a sometimes ugly first half that served as a preview of the two-month grind of conference play.
Cincinnati, however, hung around despite missing 10 of its first 11 shots thanks to a defense that kept getting in passing lanes and getting under the Panthers' skin. Then again, the Bearcats are no stranger to struggling early. They've done it so often this season it hardly registered.
"We knew shots (were) going to end up falling anyway," Kilpatrick said. "Shots have been like that the past couple games. Once you just focus on defense and rebounding, everything will pan out."
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