PITTSBURGH (AP)—Pitt’s outside shots weren’t dropping, and Robert Morris began to sense it could beat the nation’s No. 2 team. At least until the Panthers began feeding the ball to the one player on the court the Colonials couldn’t defend.
Aaron Gray’s size and scoring touch inside proved too much for smaller Robert Morris to handle and No. 2 Pittsburgh held off an upset bid by its city rival, overcoming a second-half deficit to rally for a 67-53 victory Wednesday night.
The 7-foot Gray, four inches taller than any Robert Morris starter, had 13 of his 21 points and 11 of his 15 rebounds in the second half. As a result, the Panthers (7-0) outscored the Colonials 26-11 down the stretch after trailing 42-41 on Derek Coleman’s drive to the basket with 13 minutes remaining.
“We understand what it takes to win, and we were able to do that tonight,” Gray said.
And what Pitt most often does to win is repeatedly get the ball to Gray, the Big East preseason player of the year.
The Panthers answered Robert Morris’ comeback try by going on a 12-2 run finished off by Gray’s three-point play. Gray had seven points during the surge. Ronald Ramon also hit a 3-pointer—one of only two Pitt made—after Robert Morris (4-1) had closed to 47-44.
“We had no answer for Aaron Gray. He was the X factor,” Robert Morris coach Mark Schmidt said. “I thought we made it difficult for him at times but, at the end, they got the ball inside to him and that was the game.”
Pitt helped keep the game close by missing 15 of its 17 3-point attempts.
“Coach (Jamie) Dixon did a great job of pulling us back together when we kind of stepped outside ourselves,” Gray said. “We got back to playing Pittsburgh basketball, and that’s when we took over the game. Coach said to slow things down a bit, take your time. He said we were getting great shots but we can get better shots, and when we started to do that things started coming together for us.”
Mike Cook added 11 points and Levon Kendall had 10 for Pitt, which improved to 26-0 against Robert Morris and 64-0 against Northeast Conference teams. The Panthers, ranked No. 2 for the seventh time in school history, are 7-0 for the fifth consecutive season.
“They’re No. 2 for a reason, too,” Schmidt said. “I thought if we could hang in there until the final 10 minutes we had a chance, and we did. Pitt just overpowered us the last six or seven minutes.”
Robert Morris, a commuter school based near the city’s airport, kept it close despite trailing by 12 points in the first half and getting only six points from A.J. Jackson. He was averaging 24 points but made only two of 13 shots. Coleman scored 12 points as Robert Morris shot only 37 percent (20-of-54) to Pitt’s 51 percent (27-of-53).
“When he (Jackson) has to go against an Aaron Gray at 7 feet and Levon Kendall at 6-10, it’s difficult,” Schmidt said. “His jump shot just wasn’t dropping. But when you’re 6-5 and you’ve got a 6-10 (player) flying at you, it’s a lot harder than when a 6-4 is flying at you.”
It’s not as if Robert Morris players don’t know Pitt’s, and vice versa, as they often are summer league teammates. Maybe that familiarity made the Colonials a little less fearful of the Panthers, who won their first six games by an average of nearly 17 points. Robert Morris was off to the first 4-0 start in its history.
Pitt isn’t accustomed to playing tight games against the Colonials, who lost 24 of the previous 25 meetings by double-digit margins. The closest the Colonials came to winning was an eight-point loss in 1980, two years before Pitt began playing in the Big East.
“This still was a loss,” the Colonials’ Tony Lee said about hanging in with Pitt for most of the game. “No loss is good. It was like any other loss.”