PITTSBURGH (AP) – Pittsburgh center Talib Zanna backed his way into the post before nearly losing the ball. When a teammate appeared ready to race in and grab it, Zanna held up his right hand as if to say, “it’s OK.”
A second later, Zanna was back in control. A moment after that, his baby hook shot from 5 feet slipped through the net. Just as quickly, it seemed, the Panthers were still unbeaten and Penn State was still playing the role of little brother in a basketball rivalry that remains one-sided, at least for now.
Zanna scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half and Pitt pulled away late for a 78-69 victory over the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at the Petersen Events Center.
“I think the first half we kind of forced a lot of shots,” Zanna said. “The second half we came in just changed some principals. They went small. We had to adjust some stuff. The paint was wide open.”
Yes it was. All but two of Pitt’s 17 field goals in the second half came in the lane, six of them by Zanna. The senior is a bit of a late bloomer for the Panthers (8-0), but showcased his newfound maturity when he spent most of the first 20 minutes as a bystander.
“He is an emotional kid,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “He plays hard with a lot of energy. Patience is something we want him to continue and develop and grow with.”
Lamar Patterson added 16 points and nine rebounds for the Panthers while James Robinson shook off foul trouble to finish with 10 points, including consecutive fast break layups with less than 3 minutes to play to turn aside one final rally by the Nittany Lions (6-3).
Tim Frazier led Penn State with 27 points but the Nittany Lions fell to Pitt for the sixth straight time. D.J. Newbill chipped in 18 but Penn State couldn’t keep up when the Panthers turned up the pressure down the stretch.
The Nittany Lions took a 59-58 lead on a layup by Donovon Jack with 5:15 left but Pitt responded with an 11-3 burst to take control.
“They had fresh legs, I’ll give them credit,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said. “We looked like we wore down a little bit at the end.”
Zanna and Robinson had a little something to do with it.
Robinson hit a pair of free throws to give the Panthers a 60-59 lead. The teams traded 3-pointers when Zanna blocked a Newbill layup attempt, starting a fast break that ended with Robinson snaking in for a basket. The Nittany Lions called timeout to settle things down, but Robinson knocked the ball away from Frazier then chased it down on his way to a lay-up that pushed the lead to 67-62.
The Nittany Lions missed on their next possession when Zanna quickly recovered from the near turnover to push the advantage to seven.
“They really did a great job, Jamie did a great job developing him,” Chambers said. “He looked terrific.”
Frazier responded with a quick layup, but the Nittany Lions would get no closer.
Pitt shot just 2 of 11 from 3-point range but overcame it by outrebounding the Nittany Lions 38-29 and having its way in the lane in the second half.
The teams used to meet sporadically over the last three decades before the series hit pause indefinitely eight years ago when then Penn State coach Ed DeChellis opted to stop playing the Panthers after Pitt ripped off five straight relatively lopsided wins.
Chambers said he and Dixon have talked about making it an annual event, though Dixon cautioned “there are 50 games I’d like to play.”
The renewal served as more as a litmus test for where both programs are after promising Novembers than a true showdown.
The Panthers came in 7-0 for the eighth time in the last 13 years led by a versatile offense that came in averaging 82 points game.
The going would be considerably tougher in the early going against the Nittany Lions, who slowed the game, often handing the ball to Frazier in the waning seconds of the shot clock and asking him to go to work.
It wasn’t a problem. Frazier had little trouble getting to the basket, breaking down the Panthers off the dribble and attacking whoever happened to be in the way. He scored 13 points before the break, including a twisting layup that gave Penn State a 30-28 lead at half and marking the first time all season the Panthers haven’t led heading into the final 20 minutes.
The Nittany Lions, however, couldn’t keep it going.
“We’ve just got to come down to execute down the stretch,” Frazier said. “We showed it in other games where we made game-winning plays. We need to do it consistently.”