Being undefeated at this point of the college basketball season isn’t anything new to Pittsburgh. But trying to build on such a big non-conference win is definitely unfamiliar territory.
The sixth-ranked Panthers take the court for the first time since defeating then-No.6 Duke as they look for their third 12-0 start in five seasons Saturday at Dayton, which has won nine in a row.
Pitt hadn’t beaten a top 10 team out of conference in the regular season since knocking off No. 4 Kentucky on Nov. 27, 1998. But that changed on Dec. 20, when they rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit to top the Blue Devils 65-64 in overtime on a 3-pointer by Levance Fields with five seconds to play.
“I needed a little space and I got the space and it went in,” Fields said. “I talk about game-winners all the time. I had to hit it for my teammates, myself and the city of Pittsburgh.”
The win came with a steep price, however. Senior guard Mike Cook tore his ACL with less than a minute to play in regulation and will miss the rest of the season, taking his 10.4 points per game out of the lineup—and more importantly — his leadership.
“This is the most bittersweet (game) in my coaching career,” Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said.
“I told them at the timeout with 16 seconds left to win this one for Mike and then his best friend hits the winning shot after we come back the way we did. I am so proud of my kids.”
Fields has been the catalyst for Pitt’s offense, averaging 11.8 points and 5.6 assists in his junior season. He leads the Big East and is among the top 20 players in the country with a 2.95 assist-to-turnover ratio.
But Fields has had plenty of help. Forward Sam Young has emerged as a go-to player and is averaging a team-leading 17.7 points, while freshman DeJuan Blair’s is contributing 12.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
Blair had 15 points and 20 rebounds against Duke—his fourth double-double in five games. Pitt has one of the top 10 rebound differentials in the country, averaging 11.1 rebounds more than their opponents.
The Panthers are also among the top in the country in point differential, winning games by an average of 21.5 points.
Pitt ran through its non-conference slate 12-2 last season on its way to its fourth regional semifinal NCAA tournament appearance in six seasons. But the Panthers played a pair of top 15 last December—Wisconsin and Oklahoma State— and lost both.
One of those non-conference wins was an 84-54 victory over Dayton, the first time the teams had ever met, as Young had 18 points and Fields added 16. The Flyers were 10-1 coming in, but the rout triggered a swoon that saw them lose 11 of their final 20 games.
The Flyers are 10-1 again, but this time have a marquee victory heading into this game. They won 70-65 at then-No. 14 Louisville on Dec. 8, and have outscored opponents by an average of 9.3 points during their winning streak.
Dayton is led by senior guard Brian Roberts, who leads the team with 18.2 points and 4.5 assists per game. Roberts, a two-time All-Atlantic 10 selection, had 20 points in the Flyers’ 91-74 win against Loyola of Maryland on Dec. 22.
Roberts had 21 points in Dayton’s loss to Pitt last season, but no other Flyer reached double figures.