(16) Pittsburgh 86, Providence 66
PITTSBURGH -- Somebody told Providence coach Tim Welsh earlier in the day that Pitt center Chris Taft was in a scoring slump. It was exactly what he didn't want to hear.
Taft scored a career-high 25 points and Carl Krauser adeptly ran No. 16 Pittsburgh's fast-breaking offense while playing one of his best defensive games of the season, leading the Panthers to an 86-66 rout of Providence on Monday night.
Krauser had 19 points, nine assists and two steals and helped shut out Friars point guard Dwight Brewington for nearly 32 minutes to help the Panthers win their fifth in six games. Brewington, averaging 18.5 points in his last four games, finished with eight points but didn't score until Pitt (15-3, 5-2 Big East) led 66-45.
Taft, expected to be one of the Big East's top players but averaging only 12 points over his previous five games, scored more than 20 points for just the third time this season. The 6-foot-10 sophomore also had 15 rebounds as Pitt held a 39-24 edge on the boards.
Taft's previous career high was 24 against Providence last season, as Welsh well remembers.
``I said, `Don't ever say that to me,' `` Welsh said when told of Taft's recent scoring problems. ``That guy's a monster. ... Pitt is a load to handle and they really crushed us on the boards.''
Ryan Gomes scored 24 points, but the Friars (9-11, 0-7) lost their seventh in a row and 10th straight in the Big East dating to last season.
Pitt's 86 points were its most in 13 games since scoring 87 against Duquesne on Dec. 4. If there was any letdown following comeback wins over nationally ranked Connecticut and Syracuse in which Pitt trailed by 17 in each game, it didn't show.
``Syracuse was an emotional win, but I thought our guys handled it well,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said of the 76-69 victory over the then-No. 4 Orange on Saturday night. ``Our focus was good in the shootaround today, and that's a good sign.''
So was Taft's elevated level of play, considering he was held to eight points by Syracuse and to 11 or fewer in Pitt's last three games. But he was much more assertive offensively against a Friars lineup that had no starter taller than 6-9, getting 10 in the first half before dunking several times off Krauser passes as Pitt pulled away throughout the second half.
``I went in with the mindset that we had to win this game,'' Taft said. ``I was trying to get every rebound and post up strong and aggressively because I knew I would get the ball if I did.''
Pittsburgh won its third in a row since its worst slump in four years, a string of three losses in five games. All three losses were significant upsets, to Bucknell, Georgetown and St. John's, with the latter loss coming to a team that doesn't have another Big East victory.
``But they kind of look like their old selves now,'' Welsh said.
Since that slump, Pitt has tightened up what has been one of the nation's top defenses the last three seasons and Krauser has been more under control, no longer forcing shots or dominating the ball in late-game pressure situations.
There weren't any of those in this game, even though Providence was coming off five consecutive losses by five points or fewer. Pitt opened a 5-0 lead and never trailed, pulling out to a 32-22 lead with 4:40 left in the first half by outscoring the Friars 10-3 during a 2 1/2 -minute stretch. Taft scored twice from in close, once on an excellent pass by Krauser, and Ronald Ramon made four free throws.
Pitt was the Big East's worst foul-shooting team going into its 76-69 win over then-No. 4 Syracuse on Saturday night, but was 21-of-27 from the foul line that night and was 21-of-24 Monday.
``We started doing a different drill in practice where everybody lines up on the baseline and one guy shoots (free throws), so there's a lot of pressure,'' Krauser said. ``That type of discipline makes you think about making free throws.''
Providence, now 3-13 at Pittsburgh, never got closer than eight points in the second half and was out of it after Pitt reeled off eight consecutive points to go up 57-41 with 12:49 remaining following Chevon Troutman's three-point play.