January 19, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers forward Dante Taylor (11) reacts to a made basket against the Connecticut Huskies during the second half at the Petersen Events Center. The Pittsburgh Panthers won 69-61. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Panthers squeeze by Orange

Once again the Pittsburgh Panthers men’s basketball team found themselves in the lead at the half against a ranked opponent. Against Michigan and Cincinnati this did not work out for the best, however on this day, Pitt got it’s signature win of the season against the sixth ranked Syracuse Orange by a 65-55 score.

“We wanted to win this game,” Tray Woodall said. “We obviously wanted to win those other games also but those are in the past. We said at halftime that we can’t give up the lead.”

Syracuse played with seven players, but regardless of this add Orange Head Coach Jim Boeheim among those impressed with the Panthers.

“I think they’re a really good team, I thought all year long they were,” Boeheim said. “I saw them earlier in the year and I thought they’d be leading the league right now. I think they’ve got a really good team. I think they’ll be difficult to beat the rest of the way. I’d be surprised if they lose many games. I like their team and I think it’s a very, very good team. They’re the best team that we’ve played, without any question. It’s not even close.”

Syracuse controlled most of the first half thanks to nine points from junior C.J. Fair and steady play from their sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams.

However at the half, it was the Panthers who held a 27-25 lead. Pitt’s depth showed once again as all 10 players scored at least a point in the first half of the contest.

The Panthers were paced by their two seniors Woodall and Dante Taylor who each had five points.

The Orange led 12-5 at the start of the game, before Pitt found themselves. It started with a Taylor three point play to cut the lead to 12-10.

Pittsburgh showed their desire and seeing a play through when J.J. Moore fought for a rebound and scored to tie the game up at 14. Lamar Patterson tied things up at 18 when his lay-up attempt snuck through despite a foul.

The Panthers got their first lead on a Woodall three with 6:15 to play in the first half, a 21-18 advantage.

The Panthers made the most off of the eight Syracuse miscues in the half, scoring 10 points.

To open the second half, it was Trey Ziegler who came out to start the second half with James Robinson having two fouls. Ziegler rewarded his team with four quick points.

The Panthers would hit a lull allowing Syracuse back in the game, but a three from Cam Wright as the shot clock expired seemed to bring back the focus.

“I was screaming at J.J. [Moore],” Wright said. “He had it at the top of the key. I definitely wanted the shot, I felt that I could hit it.”

Patterson then had a great drive and hanging layup followed by Taylor making one of two free throws.

With 5:50 left in regulation, the Panthers lead went to nine when Durand Johnson hit a big three.

Syracuse tried to stay in, but Pitt played together and made sure that did not happen.

Steven Adams went in for a lay-up and was fouled in the eye taking him out. By rule Syracuse Head Coach Jim Boeheim could select any of the other four players to shoot the free throws and he chose Wright. Wright a 10-21 shooter from the line before the shots, calmly sank both to give the Panthers a 52-45 lead.

“I had a feeling [Boeheim] was going to pick me,” Wright said. “I haven’t been shooting the ball well from the free throw line, but we practice free throws so much day in and day out. I actually was happy that he did pick me. It was a couple of extra points.”

The Panthers kept their lead and with 1:02 left in regulation Michael Carter-Williams fouled out. Carter-Williams was a big part of the Orange attack scoring 13 points.

To add to the Panthers lead, Woodall shot a lay-up that was counted since Trevor Cooney got called for goaltending and in addition, Woodall took a free throw which he made.

While Fair made a three to give him 20 points, it was a case of too little too late.

It is a short break for the Panthers as they next host Seton Hall Monday at 9 pm. The game will be televised by ESPN-U.

They said it:

Woodall on the Oakland Zoo, many of which slept over at the Petersen Events Center- “We were ecstatic last night knowing they were sleeping in the gym. A lot of our guys probably wanted to sleep in the gym too. It was great to see everyone so enthusiastic and when we see them ready to go, then we have no choice but to get up for a game like this.”

My take: The Panthers came up big in the second half with their rebounding. Their advantage on the boards has often determined if they won or lost come the final whistle. The Panthers were very unselfish with spreading the ball, while Syracuse depended on three players in Fair, Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. When Carter-Williams fouled out, it was out of desperation and confirmed the Pitt victory. This win is easily the biggest of the season. Experts had no idea what to make of this team and in the last poll, bracket expert Joe Lunardi had this team as an eighth seed, I think they’ve moved up a bit now. This win shows me that the Panthers are ready to play a full 40 minutes against a challenging opponent, something they failed to do against Michigan and Cincinnati. Yes every game is important, but it is these ranked ones that provide that extra spark. Now the goal is to prepare for another full 40 minutes in two days.

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