Pitt junior center Gary McGhee
Even during an off day for leading-scorer Ashton Gibbs, the second straight, incidently, the Pitt men's basketball team wasn't about to become the latest Big East school to be knocked off in the first round at the NCAA Tournament.
Fortunately for No. 3-seed Pittsburgh, senior guard Jermaine Dixon and redshirt junior forward Gilbert Brown tallied 17 points each to top six Panthers in double figures during an 89-66 win against 14th-seed Oakland, Mich. during the NCAA West Regional matchup Friday at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisc.
Villanova was the only Big East team to win Thursday, although the second-seeded Wildcats nearly lost to No. 15 Robert Morris before squeaking out an overtime victory. This was not lost on Dixon, who noted that the Panthers were well aware that Georgetown, Notre Dame and Marquette all lost to lower seeds.
"We watched the games,'' Dixon said. "We're student-athletes, (and) we like watching basketball. The Big East took some hits but that's not our main concern. We worry about what we have to do. We (were) worried about Oakland.''
Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon didn't use the previous day's Big East upsets as motivation for the Panthers.
"I know you can go that route and scare them,'' Coach Dixon said. "But my thing is to speak to strengths and talents of Oakland and make sure guys know how good they were. This team can really score, and we had to defend.''
Brown's strong performance off the bench was a boost for the Panthers (25-8), who are making their ninth straight NCAA appearance and have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in five of the previous eight years. They'll try to continue that streak Sunday against No. 6-seed Xavier, which defeated 11th-seed Minnesota, 65-54, earlier Friday. The time is still TBA.
Ironically, Brown maintained his every other game pattern where he has a big performance one game and then is horrendous the next. Actually, it's been quite comical the past month, although not for the Panthers and not for Brown, who bristled when questioned about his yo-yo season.
"We'll see what happens against Oakland,'' Brown said. And after a pitiful performance against Notre Dame in Pitt's Big East Tournament opener, Brown came back strong Friday. That offset a strong effort by 6-foot-11 Oakland center Keith Benson.
Benson tossed in 28 points for the Golden Grizzlies (26-9), who played much of the first half without starting forward Derick Nelson after an elbow from Panthers center Gary McGhee opened a cut over his left eye. McGhee actually was fouled on the play. Nelson lit up the scoreboard for 36 points to help Oakland win the Summit League title
Without him and with just Benson scoring with any regularity, the Golden Grizzlies shot just 33.3 percent from the field and 4-for-21 from 3-point range. Nelson returned for the second half with a bandage over his eye and stitches in his head, but it was too little too late for Oakland.
"We didn't make shots,'' Oakland coach Greg Kampe understated. "Are they bigger than the teams we normally play against? Yes. Are they more athletic than the teams we normally play against? Sure. But you look around this thing, and the teams that get the upsets are the teams that make shots.''
Kampe said Thursday that he would rely on defensive stopper Johnathon Jones to contain Gibbs. Indeed, Jones and the Grizzlies held Gibbs scoreless in the first half, and the sophomore sharp-shooter finished with seven points on 1-for-7 shooting. But Gibbs' teammates picked up the slack.
With Pittsburgh already leading 39-26 at halftime, sophomore forward Nasir Robinson scored six points in the first 2:26 of the second half, giving the Panthers a 45-27 cushion on an athletic baseline move for a layup. The Grizzlies weren't able to mount a serious challenge the rest of the way.
The Panthers had a rough start, but got on a roll after McGhee's inadvertent elbow to Nelson's head midway through the first half. Nelson laid motionless on the floor next to a small blood pool from the dripping wound.
Nelson eventually got up and walked to the locker room, although he was escorted by trainers.
"I'm all right,'' Nelson said. "Injuries happen.''
Nelson averaged 12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game this season. His absence on the floor -- along with a third foul on backup forward Will Hudson later in the half -- left the Grizzlies undermanned.
"It changed a lot,'' guard Larry Wright said. "He's our rock on this team. He can rebound, defend, score. He does everything for us. We didn't pick up the slack when he got hurt. That really hurt us. We didn't back him up.''
After trailing the Grizzlies for most of the first 13 minutes, the Panthers' perimeter players took control and began driving to the basket. Jermaine Dixon was particularly effective, and Oakland couldn't respond.
Down by five shortly after McGhee's elbow to Nelson, the Panthers went on a spectacular 19-2 run, including three-point plays on back-to-back possessions by Dixon and Bradley Wanamaker.
"Coach talked to us about it,'' Wanamaker said. "We started driving and penetrating, (making) extra passes. (We) got some open looks, got some rebounds and made a run.''
Ledrick Eackles scored 17 points in 23 minutes off the bench for Oakland, while Wanamaker and Robinson tallied 13 points each for Pitt. McGhee had 12 points and six rebounds, the same as Robinson, as the Panthers out-rebounded Oakland 38-32. And redshirt freshman point guard Travon Woodall scored 10 points off the bench.
Wanamaker again led Pitt with six assists, while Robinson had five.