Pittsburgh needed a little extra push in its most recent victory to remain the nation’s lone unbeaten road team. The return of its leading scorer may provide all the motivation it needs against a tough St. John’s squad.
Ashton Gibbs is expected to play for the No. 4 Panthers as they travel to Madison Square Garden on Saturday to face the Red Storm, who are taking on their 10th ranked opponent this season.
Gibbs, averaging 16.3 points, injured his knee Feb. 5 against Cincinnati and missed the last three games.
Pittsburgh (24-2, 12-1) struggled with lowly South Florida on Wednesday but pulled away for a 67-55 win after assistant coach Brandin Knight gave the Panthers a piece of his mind during a timeout.
They responded with a 14-2 run for their 14th win in 15 games as Brad Wanamaker and Nasir Robinson led Pitt with 13 points apiece.
“We went into the huddle and Brandin Knight … told us we weren’t playing our hardest - but he said it in different words,” guard Travon Woodall said. “I just went out there and tried to make a hustle play.”
The win followed road victories over then-No. 25 West Virginia and then-No. 9 Villanova without Gibbs, moving Pitt to 6-0 away from home. Coach Jamie Dixon has been pleased with the team’s play without its top scorer, but he said no one could replace what Gibbs brings.
“He’s a good shooter, and … there’s no free agent or no waiver wire pick-up of a guy who does what he does,” Dixon said. “Nobody had to change how they played; we just had to do what we do, and do it right.”
It may have to be the same story against St. John’s, which has already beaten three top 10 teams at MSG.
The Red Storm have won five of six and built on an 89-72 home win Feb. 10 against then-No. 10 Connecticut with back-to-back victories on the road. St. John’s beat Cincinnati 59-57 on Sunday and Marquette 80-68 on Tuesday.
“I am really proud of our kids to be able to win two games in a three-day stretch, which is very difficult to do in the Big East,” first-year coach Steve Lavin told the school’s official website.
“Coming into (Tuesday’s) game we talked about it simulating NCAA tournament conditions. The quick turnaround time and having to play two high-quality opponents like Cincinnati and Marquette gives you the opportunity to rehearse for NCAA tournament conditions.”
Saturday will be another opportunity for St. John’s to improve on its already impressive tournament resume, which also includes victories against then-No. 13 Georgetown, then-No. 9 Notre Dame and then-No. 3 Duke.
The Red Storm are 4-5 against Top 25 teams, with each victory coming at home. A win Saturday would give them their ninth Big East victory, a number St. John’s hasn’t reached since going 9-7 in 2001-02.
Senior guard Dwight Hardy scored 28 points against Marquette and is averaging 27.8 over his last four games.
Pittsburgh has won the last five meetings, with St. John’s last victory coming Jan. 21, 2006, at MSG - a 55-50 upset of the then-No. 9 Panthers.