PITTSBURGH (AP)—Delaware State became the second team in three days to learn that 7-foot Pitt center Aaron Gray is going to be a difficult matchup all season, especially for teams that lack size or a strong inside defender.
Ronald Ramon’s 3-pointer finished off a 9-0 run keyed by Gray that gave No. 4 Pittsburgh an early 12-point lead and the Panthers wore down Delaware State with their size and depth, winning 67-50 Tuesday night.
Gray, the Big East’s preseason player of the year, scored nine of his 17 points during the breakout start that gave Pittsburgh (2-0) a 23-11 lead. Gray had eight rebounds and proved tough to defend for Delaware State (1-1), an NIT team last season that has only one starter taller than 6-6.
“You’ll never find anyone in our league as big and strong and talented as he is,” Delaware State coach Greg Jackson said of Gray, who had 10 points and 13 rebounds Sunday in an 86-67 decision over Western Michigan.
Mike Cook, an East Carolina transfer, added 13 points and 6-9 Levon Kendall and Antonio Graves had 10 each. Ramon hit three 3-pointers for his 9 points, and Levance Fields had eight assists—many on throw-ins to Gray.
“You just have to put it up there so he can get it—and they can’t—and he puts it in there,” Fields said.
Aaron Fleetwood and Jahsha Bluntt had 10 each for the Hornets, who were 7-of-27 on 3-pointers while shooting 35 percent (19-of-54) to Pitt’s 51 percent (24-of-47).
Whenever Delaware State pushed to get back into the game, Pitt responded with a flurry or a momentum-stopping basket. The Hornets cut it to 34-27 late in the first half, but Fields hit a 3-pointer off Gray’s pass with 3 seconds left before halftime.
Delaware State got within 39-30 early in the second half, but Pitt scored 11 of the next 15 points to make it 50-34.
“They don’t have many big guys, and we wore them down,” Kendall said.
The final score might not have been as one-sided as the Panthers would have liked, but they were never seriously pushed in winning their 10th consecutive home opener. They are 38-1 at home against non-conference opponents since moving into the Petersen Events Center in 2002 and have never lost to a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference team in 15 games.
Delaware State isn’t a marquee opponent, but is part of an upgrading of Pitt’s once-soft early season schedule. The Panthers moved to play better teams after being seeded only fifth in their NCAA regional last season despite reaching the Big East tournament championship game during a 25-win season.
The game was Jamie Dixon’s 100th as Pitt’s coach. He has a 78-22 record in four seasons.
“That’s what coach Dixon has been alluding to, that we’re going to play a lot of teams that are going to be at the top of their conferences,” Kendall said. “We knew they were going to hold the ball, and they ran down the shot clock almost every time they had the ball. It forced us to be patient and it’s good preparation for down the road.”
So will three games in three days this weekend, when Pitt plays Northeastern, Massachusetts and Oakland in late-afternoon home games Friday through Sunday. The games are part of an exempt tournament and allow Pitt to replicate the compact schedule of the Big East tournament—last March, the Panthers played four games in four days in New York City.
“It’s going to be a good test of where we’re at conditioning wise, to see if we get tired,” Gray said.
Delaware State was 21-14 last season and is favored to win its third consecutive MEAC regular season title, despite a tough schedule. Tuesday’s game was the first of 14 in a row on the road for the Hornets, who don’t play at home again until Jan. 13 and have only 10 home games all season.
“We’re used to it,” Jackson said. “We play a schedule like that every season.”