No. 4 Pitt didn't blow anybody away on its way to winning the 2K Sports Classic benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer. After pulling away from unranked Maryland in the semifinals, the Panthers hung on down the stretch for a 68-66 win over No. 22 Texas in the championship game Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
But what the Panthers' wins lacked in showmanship they more than made up for with their trademark grit. It's personified almost every game by the guard combination of Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker, and those two made one big play after another down the stretch against the Longhorns, who got a spectacular 28-point game from Jordan Hamilton, who made five of seven three-pointers and scored 19 in the second half.
In short, Pitt came away with two hard-fought wins over quality teams, which is exactly the way to prepare for March when there's no escaping late-game pressure. "we have a very experienced group, so, we're used to this," Gibbs said of the Panthers' two close tournament games. "We had a lot of tough games like this last year."
With a knowing smile, Gibbs added, "We keep winning."
Gibbs played a huge role in that against Texas, scoring 24 points, and his partner, Wanamaker added nine points, six rebounds and five assists. The two combined to score 15 points in an 18-9 run that gave Pitt a 57-47 lead in the second half.
Speaking of Gibbs' hot hand, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said "We ran pretty much every play we had for him, and he kept making shots."
But so did Texas' Hamilton, a 6-7 wing man who also had eight rebounds. He scored seven of the Longhorns' last nine points, but Gibbs matched him, scoring Pitt's last seven points including two foul shots with 23.1 seconds left that ultimately won the game.
The Panthers' collection of talent isn't as sexy as Texas roster, which added terrific Canadian forward Tristan Thompson to go with Hamilton. In fact, many Big East teams have more top tier talent than Pitt. But Dixon has a way of getting his players to buy what he's selling.
"It is about the process, about the grind, the patience and commitment to what we are doing," Dixon said. "It starts with the kind of guys you have. We have guys from winning programs. They are proud to be at the university of Pittsburgh, and they are playing for the name on the front of their jersey. I think that is important. When you start with high-character kids, you can do a lot of great things."