November 18, 2006

No. 4 Pitt downs Massachusetts 85-68

PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh is good enough with Aaron Gray in its lineup to be ranked No. 4. What surprised Massachusetts was how good the Panthers were without their 7-foot star.

Pitt overcame Gray's injury and foul trouble by relying on its balanced scoring and a deep bench to beat Massachusetts 85-68 on Saturday and remain unbeaten.

Gray, the preseason Big East player of the year, drew his second foul 5 1/2 minutes in and didn't return until the start of the second half. Less than a minute after returning, he was cut on his lower lip and needed seven stitches. The 7-footer came back with Pitt (4-0) up 68-52 with 11 minutes remaining.

Despite playing only 17 minutes, Gray had 14 points and five rebounds. He was coming off a 24-point, 14-rebound game against Northeastern.

"We drew up three new plays designed to go right at him and get him in foul trouble," UMass coach Travis Ford said. "When he went out, I said, 'OK,' but it got worse. ... We didn't take advantage while he was out. They're certainly one of the best three or four teams I've seen."

Mike Cook also had 14, Levance Fields had 13 points and five assists, Antonio Graves added 12, and Tyrell Biggs had 11 points and eight rebounds in a reserve role.

"We are eight or nine deep, and when Aaron went out, Tyrell stepped in," Fields said. "When he plays like that, he's going to be tough to stop. We clicked out there and things went well."

The Panthers return eight of their top 10 players from a 25-victory team, and they relied on that depth to keep UMass from making any run to get back into the game during the second half.

"I felt I played strong," said Biggs, who made 5 of 7 shots. "I took smart shots and I took my time and I wasn't rushing shots."

Pitt has already had nine players score in double figures at least once this season. Pitt's bench outscored the Minutemen's backups 24-10.

"We got some good performances from our bench players, but I don't consider them bench players," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We start nine players."

Stephane Lasme had 17 points and nine rebounds for UMass (2-1), which was outrebounded 36-26. James Life scored 15 — all four field goals were 3-pointers — Rashaun Freeman had 14 and Gary Forbes scored 12. Freeman and Life also got into foul trouble in the first half, playing only 13 minutes between them, and that helped prevent any comeback.

"I knew they had great players, but I didn't expect all those guys to make that many shots," Lasme said. "We learned we have to play better and we have to play harder. We're going to be a good team, but we're not there yet."

Ford said, "When we get outrebounded by 10, we're not going to win many games. Pitt is just really, really good."

Even with Gray sitting out, the Panthers scored the final seven points of the first half — Levon Kendall hit a jumper and added two free throws — to take a 46-37 halftime lead. They stretched that to 13 points early in the second half on Mike Cook's drive to the basket off Fields' pass, then held double-digit leads for most of the half. The biggest lead was 19.

"We ran into a great team that played great," Ford said. "We had to hope they played bad."

Both teams are playing three games in three days this weekend in the Colonial Classic, with Pitt taking on Oakland, and UMass meeting in-state opponent Northeastern on Sunday.

Oakland beat Northeastern 67-52 on Saturday. The tournament winds up Friday when Florida State, which won its three home games in the event, plays at Pitt.

UMass, one of the Atlantic 10's preseason favorites, and Pittsburgh were members of the former Eastern Eight from 1976-82 before Pitt left for the Big East. Pitt won nine of its 13 conference games against Massachusetts.

No comments: