The Pittsburgh Panthers men’s basketball team made it interesting in the first half, however came out strong to start the second as they defeated the Lehigh Mountain Hawks 78-53.
Tray Woodall led all scorers with his 23 points. C.J. McCollum led Lehigh with 17 points.
“Really can’t say enough about either guy, everyone played well, all 10 of us,” Head Coach Jamie Dixon said. “Obviously, it’s a good win against a very good team. A team nobody wanted to play in the preseason NIT, but we got them.
The Panthers were firing on all cylinders to open the first half. The passing was there, the pace of play was good and the defense was present. Zanna was present on the offensive side burying shots from all over the court, using the midrange game he had added since
The Mountain Hawks were able to raise their game as the half wore on making it a tough contest and taking the lead for stretches of the half.
A few Panthers were in foul trouble for the first half but the Panthers found a way to lead 35-30 at the half. Zanna had 11 points. Center Gabe Knutson had eight points to lead Lehigh while potential NBA top 15 draft pick McCollum had seven points. The Panthers were outshot 47.4% to 42.9% but put up nine more shots that the Mountain Rams were.
Still as Durand Johnson said, he knew this team could and needed to do better and Woodall was the guy that pumped them up.
“At the break, Tray said we needed to pick it up,” Johnson said.
Johnson also got to start the second half – a sign that his hard work has been paying off.
“It felt good,” Johnson said. “Coach (Dixon) got on me a lot, talking about being solid, coming out and being patient. I just focused on the defensive end and doing what my team needed me to do to help get the win.”
The Panthers came ready to play in the second half. Zanna was a force offensively again and had a block that electrified the crowd and he finished with 20 points, tying his career high which he achieved this season against Mount St. Mary’s.
“I just want to come out, play hard and do what the coaches tell me to do,” Zanna said.
Woodall appeared as if he could do no wrong including drilled a three right as the shot clock expired.
“I think they just did a nice job of using their size,” Lehigh forward Gabe Knutson said when asked what the difference was between halves. “I think we held with them in the first half, but obviously when you’re bigger and you play more minutes out there it’s going to wear on you. I think they did a nice job of rebounding and using their size in there.”
A surprise in this tournament has been the play of Durand Johnson. Johnson scored the first points of his collegiate career in the win against Fordham and with Lamar Patterson in foul trouble, he saw a lot of time. He was aggressive on both sides of the ball and was leading a fast break in the second half. The Panther bench also outscored Lehigh’s 24-11.
In many of the physical categories: paint, points of turnovers, second chance points and even the assist-to-turnover ratio, the Panthers dominated Lehigh.
Although he had a fast start, as the game wore on McCollum struggled a bit, frustrating himself to the point of a forced foul and also having the competitor of him have some banter with the Oakland Zoo. McCollum would finish strong, but James Robinson’s defense often left the projected NBA lottery pick searching for answers.
“I thought they did a pretty good job limiting my touches,” McCollum said. “I got up 11 shots, but they had great help defense and I had five turnovers on my part. I thought they did a good job overall.”
His head coach, Dr. Brett Reed agreed and praised the Panthers.
“I thought they did an excellent job,” Reed said. “As a defensive unit, Pitt has a reputation of being very strong, very diligent and it certainly carried through tonight. They did a nice job covering an effective scorer. We would have liked to find more opportunities to get him involved and we will continue to grow with that. Not only did they do a nice job neutralizing C.J. McCollum, their rotations were strong, they were helping, they were limiting us to one shot. They even forced more turnovers than we are more characteristic about. I give them a great deal of credit. “
The victory moves the Panthers to 3-0 on the season and they have earned a semi-final matchup against fifth ranked Michigan next Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. Their next game though will be at home against Oakland Saturday with the tip-off scheduled for 7 p.m.
This win was a good one for the Panthers. On paper, fans may be thinking, what’s so great about Lehigh, but the answer is a lot. They likely will make the NCAA Tournament and win the Patriot League. The Panthers were fortunate that Knutson was injured as he can cause a lot of problems and it likely led McCollum to feel alone out there at times. I will be honest when I say that last year’s Panthers team would have lost that game. They disappeared for too many stretches, had too many lapses and frankly lacked leaders. This year the Panthers are a team again and are dominating in the paint. They are overwhelming the competition and it is refreshing to see this team become accountable once again.
In the earlier matchup, Robert Morris defeated Fordham 74-58 to get their first victory of the season. Velton Jones led the Colonials with 18 points.