It seemed like it could have slipped away in the second half. Adams was in foul trouble and didn’t play the final 6+ minutes. And while the box score might suggest that Taylor wasn’t much of a drop-off (fewer rebounds and blocks but more points and less turnovers), Adams’ defensive impact was huge. His blocks had the effect of keeping UConn wary of going inside as much as they wanted — yes, even as Ryan Boatright appeared to spend the second half continually driving to the lane. Adams had their frontcourt wary of going all the way to the rim. They didn’t want to challenge him.
Taylor was not that intimidating presence. And after a Napier 3 next three offensive opportunities for UConn had them going right into the paint after Adams departed. That said, Taylor came up huge in a way that Adams cannot. He drilled both of his freethrows with under 3 minutes left and Pitt clinging to a 2-point lead.
Pitt’s overall freethrow shooting still looks weak (17-23), but when you look at who took FTs and their general numbers it is hard to say that Pitt left much more than 2 points on the table (Zanna 1-3, Patterson 4-6). But in a way that reminds me of Dixon excusing the poor FT shooting of the Page/Brown teams of his first couple years, Pitt “made them when they had to.” Pitt all six FTs in the final 3 minutes to keep UConn from being able to snatch the game.
James Robinson came up exceptionally big in the final minutes. He drained all 4 of his FTs in that final 3 minutes and hit a huge 3 after UConn had tied the game at 58.
Robinson‘s 3-pointer came on a pass from Dante Taylor, who spotted him open in the right corner after running a pick-and-roll with Lamar Patterson.
Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie couldn‘t complain.
“We played our percentages there,” Ollie said. “He‘s a good player, and he stepped up and hit a shot.”
Ollie spent 13 seasons in the NBA, so he‘s used to seeing one of the oldest tricks in the playbook. What he wasn‘t happy about is that when the Panthers ran the play again, Taylor took a pass from Woodall and popped a 15-footer.
“We got beat on a pick-and-roll,” Ollie said. “It‘s the toughest thing to guard. That‘s why Malone and Stockton ran it for so long.”
It was the smart percentage by Ollie. Give Ollie some credit for knowing what the Pitt players were and weren’t doing. Robinson had really been scuffling on the offensive end for the last few games. His shots hadn’t been falling. His confidence in his shot looked shaky. He still had the trust of his teammates.
“That’s what he does,” senior captain Tray Woodall said. “He’s a patient player. He’s poised in clutch situations. This team has trust in him. A lot of people don’t have trust in a freshman like we do with James, but he’s instilled it in us. We’ll definitely go to that guy, and we know he’ll be ready when the time comes.”
Robinson’s 3-pointer came right after Connecticut rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to tie the score at 58-58. Ryan Boatright, who scored 16 of his game-high 20 points in the second half, made a 3-pointer to cap a 15-6 Huskies run just 27 seconds earlier.
Robinson had been struggling. He was shooting 29 percent in Big East games; 14 percent from 3-point range. Coach Jamie Dixon benched him for a game at Rutgers two weeks ago, and his production in other areas had slipped considerably in recent weeks, too. He was coming off a game at Villanova where he did not make a field goal.
Still, it was no surprise to his teammates when he confidently stroked the shot that stopped the bleeding and got the Panthers headed back in the right direction. After Robinson’s clutch shot, Pitt finished on a 9-3 run over the final four minutes.
“He’s always wanted to take the big shot,” junior guard Trey Zeigler said. “Even in practice, at the end-of the-clock situations, he always wants to take the shot. It wasn’t a surprise that he wanted to take the shot. And he knocked it down for us.”
He is still having some struggles. It seems that his passes are slower lately, almost telegraphed at times — leading to more turnovers. The reality is more likely, that he is learning the difference between playing mid-majors and Big East quality teams. He has to make stronger passes or more will get picked.
It seemed that Pitt was going to run away with this game. Not simply because they raced out to a double-digit first half lead. They didn’t let up. Not at the end of the half — like they did against Michigan and Cinci where they gave up some quick and easy baskets to cut the lead. They didn’t let up to start the second half. You knew UConn wasn’t going to keep missing as many shots as they did in the first half. I mean, yes, Pitt played some great D, but UConn missed some wide-open chances.
Pitt kept the double-digit lead for 8 minutes into the second half. UConn whittled it down over the next 8 minutes to tie the game. You could feel the angst among Pitt fans that this game was going to be blown. But Pitt’s defense stiffened. They denied the lane for Boatright. They forced UConn to use clock to find a shot. Then denied second chances by getting the rebounds. And on offense, they bled the clock and finished.
They showed that they have been learning.
That‘s when Pitt showed what it has learned from home losses to Cincinnati and Marquette. Led by freshman point guard James Robinson, the Panthers showed patience and poise for a 69-61 victory over Connecticut in the final Big East regular-season meeting between the rivals.
It was the first league win for the Panthers (15-4, 3-3) at the Pete, this one coming one week after an overtime loss to Marquette. Where Pitt needed a last-second 3-pointer to tie that game, the Panthers took control of this one from the outset and didn‘t let it slip away.
“You like to finish every one,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “But we‘ve lost a few, and when you lose, you remember those ones a little more. (Connecticut) made shots. They made plays to get back and tie it up. But down the stretch I thought we came up with the rebounds. I thought we defended well and hit free throws and got a couple of big jump shots.”
“In the games that we lost, we let it go at the end,” said Pitt forward Lamar Patterson, who scored a team-high 14 points and had five assists. “We made a little change and fought through and got the victory.”
This was the first time Pitt has won back-to-back Big East games since the beginning of last February (WVU and Villanova). It’s also the first win at the Pete for Pitt since before Christmas.
If you are looking to find a reason for pure confidence in this Pitt squad. That they are moving to be a force the rest of the way. No. It’s not there. There are too many issues, and not enough time for that.
If you are looking to see signs that this team is learning. Is improving. Is getting better, than it was 2 weeks ago. Or even last week. Well, I think the signs are pointing that way. It’s not going to be easy with this team.