PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP)—When Aaron Gray picked up his third foul with more than 13 minutes left against Rutgers, the 7-footer could be seen pointing to the Pittsburgh bench and mouthing “Don’t take me out” to coach Jamie Dixon.
Dixon heeded his center’s plea, and the move paid off when Gray scored nine of his 20 points in the final 3 minutes and No. 9 Pitt held off the Scarlet Knights 76-68 on Wednesday night to remain one of three unbeaten teams in Division I. The other two, No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Florida, also won Wednesday.
Gray had plenty of help as four other Panthers (15-0, 4-0 Big East) scored in double figures, led by forward Levon Kendall, who set career highs with 14 points and 13 rebounds.
The Panthers’ inside game has been a pleasant surprise this season as Kendall and Gray, who averaged fewer than eight points between them last season, have provided an effective counterpoint to senior guard Carl Krauser, the team’s leading scorer.
Gray was averaging 13 points and 10.5 rebounds before Wednesday, and the 6-9 Kendall was averaging 7.0 points and 6.0 rebounds.
At least one person isn’t surprised by the increased output.
“I know when people looked at our inside guys on paper before the season, they wouldn’t be in awe,” Dixon said. “But I always told people we were going to be all right.”
Gray looked ready to have a dominating night early when he easily scored two of Pitt’s first three baskets. But he picked up his second foul not long after that and played just 8 minutes in the first half. The second half was a different story as he played 16 minutes, helped by his pantomime act after getting his third foul.
“I just wanted to make sure he knew I was going to play smart,” Gray explained. “In the first half the rule is, if you get two fouls, you sit. But in the second half, I felt like I was doing some things in there. I know he has a lot of confidence in me.”
Rutgers (12-5, 2-2) was led by Quincy Douby’s 27 points, but the Big East’s leading scorer had only five points in the first 17 minutes of the second half as the visitors slowly pulled away.
After Douby’s basket with 17:00 left gave Rutgers its last lead at 43-42, the Scarlet Knights managed just one field goal and two free throws before Marquis Webb scored on a drive with 7:23 left.
Pitt built an eight-point lead during the stretch before Douby—who sat for more than 4 minutes not long after picking up his third foul with 11:21 left— hit a long 3-pointer to make it 57-52 with a little over 5 minutes left.
Krauser answered with a 3-pointer and Pitt never led by fewer than seven points after that as Gray went 7-of-10 from the line down the stretch.
Krauser came in averaging 17 points and was held to six, but he earned Dixon’s praise for directing an offense that had just seven turnovers, two in the second half.
“He’s not forcing shots, he’s recognizing what’s out there,” Dixon said. “His defense was really good. They were trying to make the other guys beat them, and he understood that.”
Rutgers came close for the second time in a week on their home court against a Top 10 team. Last Wednesday, the Scarlet Knights lost to then-No. 3 Villanova 84-78 in overtime.
“We just got beat by a better team,” Rutgers coach Gary Waters said. “When they go bad, they can always go in to Gray and you have to guard him. Most teams will double him, and that leaves someone else open. That makes them tough to beat.”