Pittsburgh almost got more than it bargained for in its season opener, rallying from eight points down to survive an upset bid.
Its second opponent seems unlikely to provide a similar scare.
The fifth-ranked Panthers look to win their 49th consecutive non-conference home game Wednesday night when they face Illinois-Chicago, which is coming off its worst season in more than a decade.
Pitt (1-0) kicked off the college basketball season Monday against Rhode Island, and for a while it looked like the Rams might ruin the Panthers’ five-year non-conference run at the Petersen Events Center.
Pitt won those 47 straight games by an average of 21.5 points, but needed to come from behind Monday. It ended the first half on a 9-0 run to take a one-point lead, eventually pulling away for an 83-75 win.
“This felt like a tournament game,” said guard Brad Wanamaker, who had a game-high 24 points and eight assists. “It was intense, and usually you don’t play a team this good in the first game. But I think it will help us.”
Though Rhode Island made 14 of 32 from 3-point range, Pitt held it to 10 of 28 from inside the arc. That, along with his team’s 45-32 rebounding edge - which included 18 offensive boards - pleased coach Jamie Dixon.
“I’m happy with how we finished, with how we played and I saw some good things out there,” Dixon said. “They made some 3s, some tough 3s, and that’s what made the game close.”
The play of Dixon’s backcourt had to make him particularly happy. Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs combined to average 28 points last season, but they topped that by 18 on Monday after Gibbs scored 22.
Pitt likely won’t need such a big effort from its guard tandem Wednesday. The Flames are rebuilding after an 8-22 season and a ninth-place finish in the Horizon League.
That was apparently enough for coach Jimmy Collins, who retired after 14 seasons in which he became the school’s all-time winningest coach.
Chicago native Howard Moore was hired to take over and faces a big job. UIC went 1-15 on the road last season, losing by an average of 14.0 points.
“The big thing is we have seven newcomers who have no idea about what happened last year,” said Moore, who spent the past five seasons as an assistant under Bo Ryan at Wisconsin. “I think that’s a plus for us because we’re returning guys that have a passion and a hunger to get this thing back on the right track.”
The cupboard isn’t completely bare for Moore. Guard Robo Kreps, who averaged a team-high 15.2 points but shot 35.5 percent, is back to help run Moore’s swing offense. Forward Paul Carter, a Minnesota transfer, should give the Flames depth up front.
They’ll need it against Pitt after finishing 327th in the country in rebounding margin at minus-6.4 last season.
The Panthers and Flames have never met.