The fourth-ranked Panthers should be even more formidable in Thursday night’s rematch, with leading scorer Ashton Gibbs in the lineup at the Petersen Events Center.
Gibbs missed the first of three games for Pittsburgh (24-3, 12-2 Big East) with a left knee injury during a 71-66 win at West Virginia (17-9, 8-6) on Feb. 7. Without their top perimeter threat, the Panthers went inside to score 42 points in the paint, and pulled down 18 offensive rebounds for a 40-28 edge on the glass.
“We gotta do a lot better job rebounding the ball,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “They just destroyed us on the glass. We can’t let ‘em score the ball close to the basket like they did last time.”
Gibbs returned Saturday and showed no ill effects from the injury with 26 points, but the Panthers had a five-game win streak snapped in a 60-59 loss at St. John’s.
“I knew my knee was fine,” Gibbs said. “It was a tough loss.”
The junior guard leads the Big East in 3-point shooting at 47.3 percent. Pitt clearly went away from shooting 3s in the three games without him, attempting a total of 24 compared to an average of 16.0 attempts in the conference games he has played.
“They only attempted six 3s against us and I think they took (10) the game after that,” Huggins said. “I think their whole focus was to put pressure on the wing. He gives them perimeter shooting.”
Pitt demonstrated great balance in the first matchup, with four players scoring in double figures. Nasir Robinson had 15 points and Gary McGhee added 13.
Huggins was more impressed by how the Panthers’ big men helped control the interior on the other end of the court.
“I think McGhee’s probably one of the best post defenders in the league,” Huggins said. “And it’s just not him. They’ve got size, they bring in guys off the bench with great size.”
Mountaineers leading scorer Casey Mitchell was limited to seven points on 2-of-10 shooting against Pitt in his second game back from a team-imposed suspension that lasted three games. Mitchell is averaging 8.6 points off the bench in five games since returning after averaging 16.6 in his first 18 contests - 17 of them starts.
West Virginia enters after putting together one of its best performances in Saturday’s 72-58 win over then-No. 8 Notre Dame. The Mountaineers had a season-low five turnovers and shot 53.8 percent after halftime.
Truck Bryant scored 24 points after averaging 7.0 over his previous eight contests.
“It’s his best game in a long time,” Huggins said. “And not just his made shots. I thought his decision-making was better.”
The Panthers, 15-1 at home, are closing in on clinching the Big East regular-season crown. They may be just as concerned with securing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Pitt is 6-1 against the Mountaineers at the Petersen Events Center, beating then-No. 5 West Virginia 98-95 in triple-overtime last season. Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker each scored 24 points.