Pittsburgh is on a roll again and back in contention for the Big East regular-season title.
The No. 12 Panthers look to win their sixth straight Wednesday night when they travel to face a Notre Dame team expected to again play without leading scorer Luke Harangody.
Pittsburgh (21-6, 10-4) was not expected to contend for the conference crown after losing its top three scorers from last year’s team that fell one game short of the Final Four. The Panthers, though, got off to a 5-0 start in Big East play, then lost four of five before the current winning streak.
The run has moved Pittsburgh into third place in the Big East behind No. 4 Syracuse and No. 7 Villanova - two teams the Panthers have beaten.
“It’s not something we talked about at the beginning of the season,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “It’s imperative that we improve. Some things in this league aren’t controllable, but all we can control is what we do in practice and in games.”
Pittsburgh improved to 3-0 in Big East games against top-five opponents with Sunday’s 70-65 win over the then-No. 3 Wildcats. Ashton Gibbs bounced back from a season-low two-point effort in last Thursday’s win at Marquette with 21 points.
“We stepped closer to winning the Big East regular season,” guard Jermaine Dixon said. “Last year, we put it past us now that this game is over, and that’s just a step to us getting the Big East regular season.”
The Panthers matched a season high with 21 offensive rebounds, including eight by first-year starter Gary McGhee. The junior center has 12 blocks in his last four games.
“We all could see an improvement in Gary McGhee last year,” Jermaine Dixon said. “This year, with DeJuan Blair leaving for the NBA, Gary knew that spot was his. He gets in there and he plays hard.”
This will be McGhee’s first career start in his home state. The Anderson, Ind. native likely won’t have to battle inside with Harangody.
Harangody has missed the last two games with a bone bruise to his right knee suffered in a 90-87 loss at Seton Hall on Feb. 11. The senior targeted the Pitt game to return, but was unable to make it through practice Monday and doesn’t appear to be available.
Notre Dame (17-10, 6-8) has lost both games without its star, including last Wednesday’s 91-89 double overtime loss at Louisville. The Fighting Irish built a seven-point lead in the first overtime, only to lose their third straight.
“We don’t have much to show for it, but we bust our butt and we’re 6-8 in the league,” coach Mike Brey said.
Tim Abromaitis has picked up the slack with Harangody out, averaging 26.5 points after scoring 29 against the Cardinals. Point guard Tory Jackson played all 50 minutes and finished with 19 points and seven assists.
“I don’t know if I have ever been more proud of a group or a loss in my 10 years here at Notre Dame, playing without Luke and with a lot of different guys,” Brey said.
The Panthers have won six of their last seven against the Irish, winning 93-80 last season as Jackson was held scoreless for the only time in 2008-09.