CINCINNATI -- With nine minutes remaining in Saturday's game, No. 23 Pittsburgh trailed by six points and was struggling to control 17th-ranked Cincinnati's guard penetration. But from that point on, Pitt's defense went into lockdown mode, and senior guard Tray Woodall hit two key 3-pointers to give the Panthers a huge Big East Conference road win.
Pitt's staunch zone defense held the Bearcats without a field goal in the final 9:21 and Woodall hit four 3-pointers included among his team-leading 14 points, lifting the Panthers to a 62-52 victory before 12,478 fans at Fifth Third Arena.
"The zone was something I thought we would use, but I didn't anticipate using it that much or having the amount of success we had with it," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "They were hurting us with their penetration. In the second half, we went to (the zone) out of necessity."
Steven Adams scored 13 points and Talib Zanna added 11 for the Panthers (20-5, 8-4 Big East), who reached 20 victories for the 12th consecutive season.
"We've got eight wins in the conference, but we've still got a lot to prove," Woodall said. "A lot of people kept saying we couldn't hang with the top tier teams in the Big East. But clearly they don't know what they're talking about."
Cincinnati (18-6, 6-5) shot 41.7 percent from the field in the first half but just 20 percent in the second half in dropping its second straight game. The Bearcats missed their final 14 shots from the floor and had only seven free throws down the stretch.
"When we weren't making shots ... the effort required was to be perfect on defense," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "Our effort wasn't good enough to win. Right now, we aren't tough enough to win a game against a really good team."
Cincinnati guard Sean Kilpatrick scored 15 of his 16 points in the first half. He went 0 of 7 from the field in the second half.
"He's a rhythm guy coming off screens ... the zone kind of took that away," Dixon said.
In addition to Kilpatrick's struggles, starting forward Justin Jackson did not play in the second half because of a left leg injury and center Cheikh Mbodj was saddled with four fouls, leaving the Bearcats short-handed. But Cronin was accepting no excuses.
"Give Pitt credit," he said. "The tougher team won."
When Ge'Lawn Guyn converted a layup into a 3-point play, putting Cincinnati ahead 40-34 with 12:14 remaining, it appeared the Bearcats had weathered the storm.
But the Panthers roared back when Woodall's fourth 3-pointer put them ahead 54-48 with 3:11 remaining.
"That's what Tray's supposed to do," said Pitt forward Lamar Patterson, who scored nine points. "He's our senior and our leader, and we have a lot of faith in him. He just comes through like this all the time."
There were six ties and nine lead changes before Pitt took control.
Cincinnati won 70-61 at Pittsburgh on Dec. 31, but both teams struggled on offense in the first half Saturday.
Cincinnati, which shot just 37.5 percent in a 54-50 loss at Providence on Wednesday, began Saturday's game 3 of 14 from the field. Pitt hit just 4 of 15 to start, but both offenses heated up late in the first half.
Jermaine Sanders made the Bearcats' first 3-pointer with 8:59 left in the first half, putting them ahead 16-10.
Two 3-pointers by Woodall came in the midst of an 11-0 run that gave the Panthers a 24-21 lead.
After the sluggish start, both teams shot better than 40 percent in the first half.
Kilpatrick's second 3-pointer put Cincinnati ahead 31-24. He led all scorers with 15 points in the first half before Pitt's defense put the clamps on the Bearcats.
NOTES: Woodall became the 41st Panthers player to reach 1,000 points for his career. .. The Panthers already had surpassed last season's totals for wins and Big East wins after an injury-riddled 2011-12 campaign. . . . Cincinnati outrebounded an opponent for the 21st time this season. . . . Defense has been a strength for the Bearcats, who had limited the opposition to just 37.6 percent shooting from the field through 23 games. But Pitt managed to shoot 45.5 percent on Saturday.