PITTSBURGH (AP)—After a disappointing loss at home to Marquette last Sunday, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon reminded his players that how well—or poorly—they play defense almost always determines if they win. The No. 9 Panthers apparently got the message.
Pittsburgh relied on the inside play of Aaron Gray and Sam Young to control poor-shooting St. John’s at both ends of the floor, and the Panthers extended their best Big East start by cruising to a 72-46 victory Saturday.
The 7-foot Gray had 13 points and 10 rebounds as Pitt (19-3, 7-1 in Big East) repeatedly limited St. John’s (12-9, 3-5) to one shot on offense, preventing the Red Storm from settling into a rhythm while shooting only 32.1 percent. Pitt won its ninth in 10 games.
“You can’t find too many things to fault with this,” Dixon said. “We didn’t give them too many good looks at the basket. … This was one of our best defensive games.”
Lamont Hamilton, St. John’s leading scorer, didn’t score until there were 5 1/2 minutes left in the first half and the Red Storm were down 14. The 6-10 Hamilton had 24 points and eight rebounds in St. John’s 55-50 upset of then-No. 9 Pitt last season, only to be limited to eight points and two rebounds on Saturday.
Dixon matched 6-10 Levon Kendall against Hamilton, rather than the slower Gray, a challenge Kendall willingly accepted before getting six points, nine rebounds and a blocked shot.
“He never got going,” Kendall said. “We made sure every shot was contested and we didn’t make it easy for him. I always enjoy going against the best post player from the other team. And the guys were hassling me before the game, telling me I couldn’t let him score too much.”
Since that 77-74 overtime loss to No. 15 Marquette, which was No. 24 at the time, Pitt has allowed Cincinnati and St. John’s to shoot only 34.3 percent— 36-of-105.
The 26-point margin of victory also was Pitt’s largest in a series in which St. John’s has dominated, winning 33 of 50. The previous largest was 23 points, 77-54 in 2002.
“We weren’t aggressive offensively, and you’ve got to be aggressive offensively against this team,” St. John’s coach Norm Roberts said. “We wanted to pressure them more, but once they got the lead they got us on our heels and we couldn’t pressure as much as we wanted.”
Young hit a pair of 3-pointers while adding 11 points, his second successive double-digit game after he was shut out in Pitt’s previous four games. Young had 10 points Wednesday in a 67-51 win at Cincinnati after scoring 15 points in seven games before that.
“He hadn’t played like that all year,” Roberts said. “We let him shoot out there, rather than Gray inside, and he made us pay.”
With 10 players scoring, the Panthers improved to 7-1 in Big East play for the first time since moving into the conference 25 years ago. Their best previous start was 6-1, accomplished four times. They are 13-1 at home, but have only a day off before playing Monday at Villanova (14-6, 3-4).
St. John’s was coming off victories against Syracuse and No. 22 Notre Dame, but never got close to Pitt after an 11-2 Panthers run midway through the first half made it 26-12. Gray scored three times during the run with a power move inside, a left-handed layup and a dunk.
Anthony Mason led the Red Storm with 10 points, but their five starters were only 11-of-39 (28.2 percent).
St. John’s never got any closer than 10 points after Pitt’s pivotal run in the first half, and the Panthers continued pulling away by scoring 10 of the first 12 points in the second half. St. John’s, which made only 17 of 53 shots, was limited to one basket in the first 6 1/2 minutes of the half.
“It was the rebounds we didn’t get,” Eugene Lawrence said. “The first five times they had the ball (in the second half), four times we got the stop but didn’t get the ball—they got the loose ball.”