Clemson coach Brad Brownell believes his young and improving team can be one of the better defensive clubs in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
For all of the Tigers' progress this season, No. 20 Pittsburgh left a vivid reminder of just how much farther there is to go.
Talib Zanna scored 22 points on near flawless shooting and the Panthers drilled the Tigers 76-43 on Tuesday night. The senior center connected on 9 of 10 shots, most of them dunks or layups, as the Panthers (17-2, 5-1 ACC) bounced back from a loss to No. 2 Syracuse with remarkable ease.
Lamar Patterson added 13 points, six rebounds and four assists for Pitt as the Panthers put a halt to Clemson's three-game winning streak. Pitt shot 56 percent (27 of 48) from the field and recorded an assist on all but three of its baskets.
"They make plays out of nowhere every once in awhile," Brownell said. "The defense isn't as bad as it looks. They're just so good passing the ball. It's demoralizing play defense for 30 seconds and give up a layup."
K.J. McDaniels battled early foul trouble and finished with 11 points for the Tigers (13-5, 4-2) but Clemson was never in it. Pitt needed less than 10 minutes to build a double-digit lead and cruised while handing the Tigers their worst loss of the season.
"I'm certainly disappointed with our effort and our performance," Brownell said. "We didn't play to our standard. Pitt had something to do with that."
Clemson came in one of the bigger surprises in the new-look ACC. Wins over Duke, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest had the Tigers off to their best conference start since 1997. The game against the Panthers marked the beginning of a tough stretch in which they play five of six on the road, including visits to North Carolina and Syracuse.
While Clemson may be ready to shed its status as ACC also-ran, Pitt provided a glimpse of what it will take for the Tigers to be considered legitimate contenders.
The Panthers, six games into their first season in one of the nation's top leagues, are already there.
Pitt used a quick 11-0 burst to take control, their fluid offense working just fine even without sophomore forward Durand Johnson, who is sidelined for the rest of the season after tearing the ACL in his right knee on Jan. 11. The student section wore white headbands — Johnson's signature look — in tribute while his teammates did a pretty solid impression of Johnson's streaky 3-point shooting.
Clemson came in ranked third in the country in 3-point defense but could do little more than watch as the Panthers hit 4 of 7 3-pointers during a near flawless opening 20 minutes. Pitt made 12 baskets during the first half, and recorded assists on all 12.
"I think from the start of the game we just tried to play our style of game, play as hard as we can, execute as best we could," Panthers guard James Robinson said. "We're a very unselfish team. When somebody gives up their shot to let somebody else make a play, it usually comes back around."
There was no such efficiency for the Tigers. Clemson had as many turnovers (8) as baskets during arguably their worst 20-minute stretch of the season. McDaniels went to the bench with two fouls less than 7 minutes in. Without their leading scorer, the Tigers' offense fell apart.
"We passed up a shot or two hoping to do something better and something better never happened," Brownell said.
The result was a 37-20 Pitt lead, the Tigers' biggest halftime deficit this season.
It didn't get any better. Patterson opened the second half with a 3-point heave that splashed through the net as the shot clock expired to give Pitt a 20-point lead.
Brownell became so frustrated he briefly benched four starters and threw junior walk-on guard Carson Fields onto the court. Fields had played in just six games all season, all 11 of his minutes coming in garbage time. His early entrance with 12:28 to play signaled the end of the competitive portion of things.
Just not the end of the Tigers' tough night. Clemson guard Austin Ajukwa received a technical foul with 8 minutes left for hanging on the rim after a breakaway dunk that made it 61-33.
Brownell screamed "We're down by 40" at Ajukwa as the Panthers went to the free throw line. James Robinson made the ensuing free throws to push the lead back to 30 as the "We Want Duke" chants started. The Panthers host the 18th-ranked Blue Devils next Monday.