TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—Keith Benjamin has a message for anyone who thinks No. 20 Pittsburgh is going to fall apart without injured starters Levance Fields and Mike Cook.
“I’m going to play just to shut people up,” the senior guard said after scoring 20 points to help the Panthers rebound from losing their Big East opener with a 79-66 victory over South Florida on Wednesday night.
“I hate when people talk and say that we can’t do something as a team. I feel that we’re still one of the best teams in the country, no matter what we lose,” Benjamin added. “We lost something great, but I still feel that we’re going to do something special this year because we stick together, we play hard and we play tough all day.”
Fields is expected to be sidelined 8 to 12 weeks with a fractured left foot, while Cook tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and will miss the remainder of the season. Together, they were averaging just over 22 points a game, about one-third of Pitt’s offense.
Without them, the Panthers (13-2, 1-1) are down to nine scholarships players and counting on players such as Benjamin to pick up the slack in support of leading scorer Sam Young, who delivered 16 of his 22 points in the second half.
“I’m still here. Guys that have been playing good all year, they’re still here,” Young said.
“There’s a lot of guys we would love to have, but they’re not here and we can’t dwell on that,” he said. “We’ve got to keep it up. We’ve got to keep the tradition up. We have a reputation we’ve got to uphold, so we’ve definitely got to keep that up.”
Benjamin scored 11 points in the first half when Pitt built a double-digit lead while Young was on the bench with two fouls. His long 3-pointer finished a 19-6 run that blew the game open after halftime.
Kentrell Gransberry matched his career high with 26 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for USF (10-6, 1-2). Jesus Verdejo scored 17 points for the Bulls, who trailed 54-50 before the Panthers pulled away for good.
USF coach Stan Heath noted Young got off to a strong start, hitting his first three shots before picking up his second foul. At the time, it looked like a break for the Bulls, however Pitt’s bench, especially Gary McGhee, was able to give the Panthers a lift.
“I’m not sure McGhee made the scouting report, but he did a heck of a job,” Heath said of the freshman center who had six points and four rebounds in his first action since Nov. 27.
“A couple of these guys are making people wonder why they weren’t playing,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “We knew how good they were. I’m not surprised by Gary McGhee or Keith. I hope they continue to make people wonder why they weren’t being played.”
Young scored eight points during the second-half surge that broke the game open. His 3-pointer put the Panthers up 69-56 with 7 minutes left and Benjamin’s third 3-pointer of the game gave Pitt its biggest lead, 73-56, with 4:13 to go.
Pitt bounced back from last Sunday’s 63-62 loss at No. 19 Villanova, a game in which the Panthers turned the ball over 22 times. The Panthers shot 53 percent and did a much better job of taking care of the basketball, finishing with 10 turnovers against USF.
The Bulls, coming off a 12-point road loss to Syracuse, dropped to 8-70 all-time against ranked teams.
But Dixon said this USF team is far from the one that won a total of five conference games the past two seasons.
“I think as the year goes on people will see how good a win this was because this is a very good team,” Dixon said. “They’re much improved … and will continue to get better.”