Pitt gets early test from Rhode Island

PITTSBURGH -- Pitt coach Jamie Dixon and his staff were analyzing the game tape, rewinding missed layups, failed 3-point closeouts, and looking for warts to clean up.

The Steelers were playing the Bengals on Monday Night Football and while the rest of the city’s sports fans had probably moved on to the hometown football team, the coaching staff was stuck pausing the Panthers’ 83-75 season-opening win over Rhode Island.

And there is a reason Dixon was in midseason postgame form. The Panthers are the Big East favorite, a Final Four contender and got pushed to its final few possessions against a fringe Atlantic 10 contender.

Dixon did discuss how few teams would open with such a high-quality opponent and the reality is this game was just what he needed for his team on Nov. 8. Sure, there are other quality openers Friday like Syracuse hosting Northern Iowa, Georgetown going to Old Dominion and Seton Hall playing at Temple. But in tournaments like the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer, there are few first-round games as difficult as playing a pressing team like the Rams.

“There’s a reason why teams don’t want to play them, especially on Nov. 8, because of how well they play and how well they’re coached,’’ Dixon said. “It was a good win, a quality win.’’

What Dixon discovered about his Panthers is that he has three quality closers in seniors Gilbert Brown and Brad Wanamaker and junior Ashton Gibbs. Gibbs and Wanamaker scored seven of the nine points in a 9-0 run that turned an eight-point deficit into a one-point lead heading into halftime.

Wanamaker got to the free throw line and converted on multiple trips in the final three minutes, as did Brown and Gibbs to close out the pesky Rams. Wanamaker finished with 24 points, Gibbs 22 and Brown 10, the only three players in double figures for the Panthers, something that will likely be common all season. The Final Four contender two seasons ago was interior-based with DeJuan Blair and Sam Young. This squad will be guard-oriented.

“We’re always up for a challenge,’’ Gibbs said. “That’s what coach expects of us. Those are the type of players we recruit. We all need to keep taking on those challenges and playing hard and executing. It doesn’t matter what we’re ranked. We need to come out every game hungry.’’

The Panthers were playing shorthanded with starting forward Nasir Robinson out with a right knee injury following a meniscus tear. Robinson said earlier Monday that he was hopeful he could return for the game against Maryland on Nov. 18 at Madison Square Garden. But that might be wishful thinking since he hasn’t practiced yet.

In his place, Dixon discovered that he has a hidden gem in redshirt freshman Talib Zanna, who started for Robinson. Zanna was efficient in scoring nine points and grabbing 11 boards in 20 minutes.

“I came out and did what I do best, grabbed some rebounds for my team,” Zanna said.

The more-heralded Dante Taylor was in foul trouble (three in 12 minutes) and Gary McGhee couldn’t convert some putbacks and wasn’t as much of a factor with four points and six boards. If the Panthers are going to be a serious player for a Final Four berth, then the post must develop prior to the Big East.

Dixon and the players agreed that this game felt more like February than November. The intensity and atmosphere at times rivaled a game from the middle of the season. As expected this early, the quality of play wasn’t great and that’s why Dixon and the staff were watching the game tape just minutes after the final buzzer. The Panthers don’t have time to be idle, playing Illinois-Chicago in game No. 2 of the CVC on Wednesday before a game against North Florida on Saturday. Then it’s off to New York for Maryland and either Texas or Illinois.

The heart of the Panthers’ nonconference strength of schedule will include Rhode Island, the two games in New York and then Tennessee in the SEC/Big East Invitational in the new Consol Energy Center in downtown Pittsburgh. The Vols lost an exhibition game Monday night to Division II University of Indianapolis. Pitt better hope that Tennessee cures its preseason ills so that game will matter for power-rating purposes and a possible No. 1 seed come March, especially since the only nonconference road trip is to MSG.

But for now, Dixon and his group of players will breathe easy after avoiding an opening upset.

“We played a very good team, a team that presses two-and-a-half weeks into the season,’’ Dixon said. “We took on the challenge and it’ll be a quality win later on in the season.’’