by Alan Robinson
Associated Press Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP)—All summer, his fellow coaches asked Pitt’s Jamie Dixon why he agreed to play an opponent like Rhode Island in the season opener. For most of Monday night’s game, Dixon was asking himself the same question.
Brad Wanamaker scored 24 points, Ashton Gibbs had 22 and No. 5 Pittsburgh survived an upset scare in the nation’s first Division I game of the season, rallying from eight points down to beat the Rams 83-75.
|EARLY SEASON TEST—Pittsburgh’s Brad Wannamaker, left, goes around Rhode Island’s Ben Eaves to score in the first half Nov. 8, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Pitt ended a sluggish first half in the 2K Sports Classic opener by scoring nine consecutive points over the final 1:21 after Rhode Island went ahead 36-28. The Panthers then wore down Rhode Island with their size, defense and the experienced play of the backcourt of Gibbs and Wanamaker to offset the Rams’ 14 3-pointers.
Delroy James scored 17 of his 20 points in the second half for Rhode Island, which trailed 76-74 with 1:41 to play before Pitt finished it off by making seven of eight free throws.
“There’s a reason why teams don’t want to play them, especially on Nov. 8,” Dixon said. “You don’t want your first game to be against a team that presses and shoots 3s. They made some tough 3s and kept the game close, but we made free throws and got baskets when we needed to get them.”
Pitt won its 14th consecutive season opener, eight under Dixon, and its 48th straight at home against a non-conference opponent. Gilbert Brown added 10 points and redshirt freshman Talib Zanna, starting for the injured Nasir Robinson, had nine points and 11 rebounds in his first college game.
Akeem Richmond scored 16 points and Nikola Malesevic had 13 for Rhode Island, which lost despite making 14 of 31 from 3-point range to Pitt’s 3 of 16. The Rams, outrebounded 45-32, lost their 23rd straight to a ranked opponent and still haven’t beaten a Top 5 team in 12 years.
Pitt knew Rhode Island wouldn’t be the usual rollover opponent that many ranked teams play in their opener, and the Rams—26-10 last season while reaching the NIT semifinals—weren’t as their uptempo style and pressure defense kept it close.
“This felt like a tournament game,” Wanamaker said. “It was intense, and usually you don’t play a team this good in the first game. But I think it will help us.”
The Rams’ biggest lead came on Will Martell’s basket 90 seconds before halftime but, right about then, Pitt began showing why it hasn’t won fewer than 25 games each of the last five seasons.
“We wanted to take it right at them but, sometimes, that comes with the territory,” Rhode Island coach Jim Baron said of the momentum-shifting run.
Gibbs converted a three-point play ahead of Wanamaker’s layup. Lamar Patterson’s first career basket, a dunk off Wanamaker’s feed, gave the Panthers a 37-36 halftime lead.
“We started making layups,” Dixon said. “We charted that we missed nine layups in the first half. From that point on, we made them.”
Still, Pitt — with four returning starters from its surprising 25-9 team of last season — never led by as many as three points until Gibbs’ steal and drive with 15:08 remaining made it 48-45. The teams traded leads nine times early in the second half, with Rhode Island’s final lead coming at 50-48 after James made two free throws and one of his five 3-pointers. Travon Woodall’s free throw gave the Panthers the lead for good at 54-53, and they opened leads of as many as eight before two late 3-pointers by James made it close.
“You’ve got to take what they’re giving you, and they were giving us the 3,” said James, who was recruited to Rhode Island by new Pitt assistant Pat Skerry.
Dixon likes playing early season exempt tournaments because they give his team extra games during a time they normally would be practicing. But they can create matchups that the coaches of highly ranked teams generally prefer to avoid early in a season; in 2003, Pitt had to rally to avoid losing to Georgetown, Ky., of the NAIA in an exempt tournament.
Pitt was guaranteed of playing in the tournament’s semifinals Nov. 18 in New York even before playing Rhode Island. The Panthers play Illinois-Chicago in their second home game of the event Wednesday.