Jan 6, 2003
By ALAN ROBINSON
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH – The main criticism of No. 6 Pittsburgh all season has been that the Panthers haven’t beaten a quality opponent. No one can say that now.
Ontario Lett scored 10 straight points to start Pittsburgh’s comeback in the first half, then used his size and muscle to power a 16-0 run in the second half as the Panthers overwhelmed No. 5 Notre Dame 72-55 Monday night.
“I was sick to my gut all day about this game,” Pitt coach Ben Howland said. “I’m relieved this is over.”
Notre Dame, denied its fourth victory over a Top Ten opponent, was held scoreless for nearly nine minutes as Pitt turned a 42-38 deficit into a 54-42 lead with 9:12 remaining. The Irish had only two field goals, both 3-pointers, over the final 16? minutes.
“Defense and rebounding wins games,” Howland said. “Our guys are proud of the way they play defense.”
Pitt is 42-1 under Howland when holding teams to 60 points or below, with the lone loss being to Notre Dame last season.
Brandin Knight finished off three fast-break baskets during the 16-0 run, one of them off a pretty pass by Lett, and Chevy Troutman scored off a putback and a layup.
Knight had 12 points, seven rebounds and three steals, and he and Julius Page held Notre Dame’s Chris Thomas to five points on 2-of-15 shooting. Thomas was averaging 17.4 points.
“He threw up some questionable shots, and he was kind of pressing a little bit to get them back into the game,” Knight said of Thomas.
Troutman added 12 points and 12 rebounds to key Pitt’s 51-30 rebounding edge in the Big East opener for both teams. It also was Pitt’s first Big East game in its new Petersen Events Center, and the crowd of 12,508 was into the game from the start.
“Coach was saying before how we really needed this to improve our RPI,” Troutman said, referring to the power index used to help determine which teams play and how they are seeded in the NCAA tournament. “This was a great win for us.”
It was Lett, a 6-foot-6 senior who says he much prefers to play against ranked teams than the easy opponents Pitt (11-1) has mostly played until now, who did the most damage with a career-high 20 points and eight rebounds.
Lett usually comes off the bench but, perhaps sensing the center had a big game in him, was given a rare start by Howland.
“I saw they were playing a zone and weren’t doubling on me and I took advantage inside,” Lett said. “Everybody did a great job of penetrating and that opened it up inside. Everybody on this team knows how to pass the ball.”
Matt Carroll had 31 points for the Fighting Irish (12-2), but no other Notre Dame player scored more than six.
The victory was Pitt’s first over a ranked opponent this season – the Panthers were ranked No. 2 until losing last week to Georgia – and came over the Big East opponent that often gives them the most trouble.
Even while going 29-6 last season, Pitt was swept in the season series by the Irish for a second straight season. Notre Dame’s 56-53 victory at Pittsburgh on Jan. 12, 2001, was Pitt’s last home court loss.
“Pitt has everybody back and is very physical,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “They didn’t get rattled and we did on the road. Our younger guys looked around a little bit.”
Only a few hours before game time, the Irish advanced to No. 5 for their highest ranking since being No. 4 in 1981. But, slowed by Pitt’s tight defense, the Irish never found their 3-point shooting touch.
Notre Dame came into the game shooting 40.1 percent from 3-point range, but went only 7-of-26 with Carroll going 5-of-10.
The Irish got off to a fast start, leading 26-18, but the Panthers then began to realize the Irish could not defend Lett inside. He converted two three-point plays during his one-man 10-0 run that put Pitt ahead 28-26 with just under five minutes left in the first half.
Lett also hit a key basket and a jumper from just inside the 3-point line down the stretch as Pitt made sure Notre Dame wouldn’t stage a late comeback. The Irish scored only 13 points over the final 16:14.