So, Pittsburgh started slowly in its first defense as the No.1-ranked Division I-A team in the nation and only led by five at halftime, but the Panthers pulled away in the second half and rolled past St. John's, 90-67.
Sophomore center DeJuan Blair tallied 23 points and 15 rebounds to lead Pitt (15-0, 3-0 in the Big East), while junior guard Jermaine Dixon added 17 points. Senior point guard Levance Fields had 13 points and nine assists, but four turnovers, while senior forward Sam Young had 12 points on just 5-for-15 shooting and three rebounds in 29 minutes.
"It's rare when Sam doesn't have a big game, but we have the guys who can pick things up when that happens,'' Fields said. "DeJuan, of course, had a big game. And Jermaine was able to get things going, too, so we have enough guys to step up when Sam doesn't have it for whatever reason.''
Pitt actually needed a strong push in the waning minutes in the first half to secure a 41-36 advantage at the intermission, but the Panthers clamped down on defense and found their shooting range in the second half to outscore St. John's 49-31 during the second 20-minute session.
Pitt canned three 3-pointers in a 17-4 spurt in the first seven minutes of the second half. By the time Blair came out for a rest with 8:47 left, the Panthers were up by 23 and putting on a show.
"I thought we did some things really well today,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We were able to create a lot of turnovers, and I thought that would be a key for us. That was a matchup we had to exploit, and we were able to do that.
"When you get 24 assists it's hard to complain as a coach, but I thought we could have been crisper in transition and that we missed some good opportunities there. Maybe that's a product of being off for eight days. We need to rebound a little bit better, but when you’re creating so many turnovers, there aren’t as many shots going up, so that number is going to be lower.''
Pitt sophomore guard Bradley Wanamaker joined Fields with four turnovers each, but he also had five assists and seven points. Redshirt sophomore forward Gilbert Brown added eight points, while freshman Ashton Gibbs had six on two treys. So, Pitt's bench was solid, and the Panthers also forced 24 turnovers and shot 58 percent in the second half.
Pitt also was just 14-for-23 from the free-throw line (60.9 percent), so that is still a concern at this point. But Blair was an uncharacteristic 9 of 11.
"We know it's something that we have to get better at,'' Blair said. "If you look at Memphis last year, their foul shooting cost them the national title. With our depth, teams are going to foul us and put us on the line. So, we know we have to knock them down to get where we want to go.''
The Big East had nine teams ranked in the Top 25 last week, and after playing host to unranked South Florida Wednesday, Pitt will face Louisville, Syracuse, West Virginia, Villanova and Notre Dame -- all currently ranked in the polls -- in succession before January ends. Two more games with Connecticut follow.
"That's the Big East,'' St. John's coach Norm Roberts said. "You forget it and get ready to play the No. 5 team in America (Connecticut) next. That's our conference. That's how it is every week, so we have to deal with it.''
The Panthers were sloppy with the ball in the first half and committed nine turnovers, missed eight free throws and generally appeared to be rusty and a little tight, although they wouldn't admit to the latter. Pitt only led 41-36 at the break, and when Sean Evans hit a layup, St. John's was within 43-40 and an upset was thought about by some.
D.J. Kennedy, who won a PIAA championship with Blair at Schenley High School, led the Red Storm with 18 points. But it wasn't enough to counteract Pitt's depth. Dixon made a 3-pointer. Blair muscled inside for a rebound and put-back, while Fields and Young added consecutive 3-pointers, as Pitt built a 56-42 lead.
With center Justin Burrell's back bothering him, St. John's had no answer for Blair. Roberts called him a Mack Truck.
"DeJuan Blair is an absolute beast,'' Roberts added. "It seems like his mindset is, 'I'm going to get the ball.' We just got physically worn down.''
With Kennedy and Quincy Roberts driving to the basket, the Red Storm got several easy lay-ups, and an aggressive man-to-man defense had the Panthers frustrated much of the first half. Pitt's best offense was going into Blair inside, and he responded with 12 points and seven rebounds in the first half, but spent the final 3:50 on the bench after picking up his second foul.
Blair sat with the game tied 32-32, but while he was out the Panthers closed the first half with a 9-4 run, highlighted by dunks from Brown and Young. Once Pitt hit its stride early in the second half, the Red Storm was no longer a threat.
"Their heads were down,'' Fields said. "They were out of it after a while. Even when it was close, I don't think they thought they had a chance.''
Pitt again defends its No. 1 ranking when South Florida visits Wednesday at 7.