PITTSBURGH (AP)—This second half displayed No. 12 Pittsburgh at its best. Aaron Gray scoring consistently and teaming with Levon Kendall to make it difficult on opponents inside, and Mike Cook and Ronald Ramon hitting 3-pointers to extend runs and build leads.
What the Panthers want to do is keep this going for, say, another five weeks.
Gray and Kendall wore down West Virginia with their inside scoring and rebounding and the Panthers remained in contention for the Big East regular-season title, beating the Mountaineers 80-66 Tuesday night behind a dominating second half.
Despite losing at Big East leader Georgetown 61-53 on Saturday, Pitt (25-5, 12-3) can win the league title and be top-seeded in the conference tournament next week if it wins at No. 20 Marquette on Saturday and Georgetown, an upset loser Monday to Syracuse, falls at home to Connecticut the same day. Pitt can finish no worse than second if it beats Marquette, which won at Pittsburgh 77-74 on Jan. 21.
“We’re right where we wanted to be in the Big East,” coach Jamie Dixon said, even though Pitt would be leading if it had beaten the Hoyas. “This is what we talked about, being right here in the conference.”
The surprise was that much of that talking was done by Gray, a 7-footer who is one of the top big men in school history.
Normally not a big talker, Gray was unhappy that Pitt trailed 32-29 at halftime in his final home game and let his teammates know it. He was especially disappointed Pitt might lose any chance of winning the conference, which he called “a huge preseason goal.”
“I’m usually not one to say something in the huddle, but I almost lost my voice from the halftime speech,” Gray said. “We didn’t want to let the chance for the championship slip away.”
Gray, hampered by a badly sprained ankle for 10 days and not much of a factor against Georgetown, keyed a 9-0 run that started the second half and put the Panthers up 38-32. Gray scored the first four points of a run finished off by Levance Fields’ 3-pointer.
“They’re so hard to defend,” West Virginia coach John Beilein said, a reference to Pitt’s size and depth. “But I think we’re coming. We did some things well, and we almost scored 70 points against one of the best defensive teams in the country, even though we didn’t shoot well.”
Cook credited Gray’s talk for the Panthers outscoring the Mountaineers 51-34 in the second half.
“Aaron huddled us up at halftime, and we responded,” he said.
West Virginia (20-8, 8-7) had a chance to win it, closing it to 54-51 with about 8 minutes remaining, but Cook made a 3-pointer and two free throws and Fields hit an off-balance 3 while nearly falling out of bounds during another 9-0 run that gave Pitt its first double-digit lead. Cook all but sealed it with another 3 that made it 66-53 after Joe Alexander hit two free throws for West Virginia.
“We started getting shots and we knocked them down,” Cook said.
Gray, who missed one game after hurting the ankle Feb. 17 against Washington, had 12 points and 13 rebounds and would have had a bigger night if he hadn’t missed 7 of 9 free throws.
The 6-10 Kendall, taking on a bigger role in the offense since Gray got hurt, added 12 points and nine rebounds. Cook played a strong floor game with five assists besides adding 12 points. Fields had a team-high 14 points and made 2 of 4 from 3-point range as Pitt went 8-of-16 beyond the arc after going only 3-of-15 against Georgetown. Ramon scored 10 points while making all three of his shots, two from beyond the arc, and two free throws.
The Mountaineers shot 40 percent (22-of-55) while dropping their fourth in six games and may need to win at least once in the Big East tournament to assure themselves of reaching the NCAA tournament—prompting some Pitt fans to chant, “NIT! NIT!” as the game ended. West Virginia dropped the season series to the Panthers, who won earlier this month in Morgantown by 60-47.
Dixon disagreed with his own fans, saying, “I think they’re an NCAA tournament team.”
Darris Nichols scored 14 points and Jamie Smalligan had 13 for the Mountaineers, who went 11-of-33 on 3-pointers and are only 20-of-74 in their last two games. They also were outrebounded 38-21.
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