PITTSBURGH (AP)—Opponent after opponent tried to control 7-foot center Aaron Gray of Pittsburgh and failed. Aware of that dismal track record, Providence attempted another approach—and it didn’t work, either.
Gray took control inside to finish with 22 points after sitting out much of the first half in foul trouble, and the seventh-ranked Panthers rallied to shake off stubborn Providence’s upset bid and win 74-68 Saturday.
“He’s a smart player and they know when to look for him,” Providence coach Tim Welsh said. “We took the 3-pointers away from them but they made us pay inside.”
The Panthers came into the game leading the Big East in 3-point shooting at 43 percent, but were held to 5-of-13 beyond the arc as Providence was the first Big East team to heavily rely on a man-to-man defense against them.
Pitt (22-3, 10-1 Big East) won its fifth in a row and 12th in 13 games despite playing sluggishly most of the game against a conference opponent it has dominated of late, winning seven in a row and nine of 11 against the Friars.
Gray didn’t play in the final 8 1/2 minutes of the first half after drawing his second foul, and Providence (15-8, 5-5) took advantage to earn a 34-33 halftime lead. The Friars, winless in Pittsburgh since December 1998 and 3-17 there in Big East play, built their lead to 42-36 early in the second half.
Gray scored inside on Pitt’s next two possessions, starting an 11-1 run that gave the Panthers the lead for good at 47-43 following Gray’s tap-in with 13:25 remaining. Gray, scoring more than 20 points for the first time in six games, made 10 of 17 shots and added seven rebounds—even though Providence held a 41-33 rebounding edge.
“I think they’re a team that could wind up in the NCAA tournament,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “I thought we could have played better, but I always think that way. They’re one of the few teams in the conference that’s bigger than us and outrebounds us, and we didn’t expect them to play as much man-to-man as they did.”
The turning point might have been when Gray drew his third foul with about 16 minutes remaining but stayed in the game for another 40 seconds—long enough to get another basket—before being pulled for about a minute. He returned to play most of the remaining 14-plus minutes and drew only one more foul.
“I was frustrated having to sit out the whole first half,” Gray said, exaggerating slightly about his playing time. “I made some stupid mental mistakes. I would have liked to have stayed in the game, but it wasn’t my decision. I was hoping I could convince them to let me stay in, but that shows what a good coach he is. I was frustrated and I could have easily gotten another foul.”
All but eight of Gray’s points came in the second half. He took a tumble underneath the basket while being fouled with 2:37 remaining and was taken out of the game, but returned five seconds later. Gray was checked by a trainer after the game for a sore back, and there was no immediate indication he might miss Monday’s home game against Louisville.
Providence, 2-3 against Top 25 teams this season, got 20 points each from Herbert Hill and Sharaud Curry but couldn’t quite pull off the upset. The Friars pulled to 61-59 with slightly more than four minutes remaining, but Gray scored the next time down for Pitt and Antonio Graves hit an important 3-pointer with a minute and a half left that made it 69-61.
Even after that, Curry could have cut Pitt’s lead to three if he had made two free throws with 18 seconds remaining, but he missed the first. Graves, who scored 13 points, then made a pair of free throws to seal it for Pitt. Mike Cook added 11 points and Levon Kendall had 10 rebounds despite being held to two points.
“You need to have a lot of things happen to beat a team as good as they are, especially on the road,” Welsh said. “You can’t go 7-of-16 from the foul line and beat the No. 7 team in the country. That was pretty much horrendous.”
Pitt’s 10-1 conference record is its best through 11 games since joining the Big East in 1982. The Panthers lead Georgetown by 1 1/2 games and Marquette by two games following the No. 22 Hoyas’ 76-58 win over No. 11 Marquette on Saturday.