PITTSBURGH (AP) -- It's easy to understand why Pittsburgh is back
in the Top 25 and headed for its best season in more than a decade.
It starts with defense so good it even impresses opposing coaches.
Julius Page's shooting and Brandin Knight's playmaking helped
No. 21 Pittsburgh pull away in the second half as the Panthers,
closing in on their first 20-victory season in 11 years, beat
Villanova 71-59 Saturday.
The Panthers (19-4, 7-3 Big East) opened a 12-point lead in the
first half, lost the lead briefly early in the second half as
Villanova scored 13 straight points, then went on a 10-2 run to put
the victory away.
Page had 18 points and highlighted the decisive run with a
soaring dunk on an alley-oop feed from Knight that drew the loudest
cheer of the day from the sellout crowd of 6,798.
"He kept bothering me the whole game, saying, `I've got the lob
on the back door,"' Knight said. "Every timeout he was saying it.
So I told Chad (Johnson) to run by him and tell him it was time. It
was perfect timing ... that really gave us a lift."
Page was in a shooting slump earlier, but has averaged 16 points
as Pitt has gone 4-1 in its last five games.
The Panthers need only one more victory for their first 20-win
season since the 1990-91 team went 21-12 and reached the second
round of the NCAA Tournament. Pitt hasn't played in the NCAA
Tournament since the following season, 1991-92.
"I think we have a chance to finish strong if we defend well
and rebound well," Pitt coach Ben Howland said.
Pitt is 14-1 this season and 25-1 since last season when holding
an opponent under 60 points -- a number that Page said is in the
players' minds going into every game.
"I love that team. I love the way they play defense," said
Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team committed 19 turnovers to
Pitt's nine. "They play hard on every possession. They have good
chemistry and a good understanding of what they're trying to do."
Except for a brief flurry at the end of the half when Villanova
began the 13-0 run, Pitt -- the nation's top defensive team much of
the season -- played at its preferred pace rather than that of its
89-76 loss at unranked Notre Dame on Wednesday.
"I felt we would bounce back," Howland said. "When you come
off a game like that, it increases your awareness of playing good
After Villanova closed to 46-41, Donatas Zavackas began building
Pitt's lead again with 3-pointers from opposite sides of the court
on consecutive possessions. Page's dunk made it 54-43 and, after
Derrick Snowden drew an offensive foul on the other end, Page hit a
jumper and Knight made a left-handed layup to up the Panthers' lead
Knight had 14 points and eight assists despite going only
6-for-18 from the field, while Zavackas added 12 points. During
Pitt's decisive run, Knight hit two baskets, assisted on two and
drew two fouls.
Pitt held Villanova to 15 points in the first 16 minutes and was
effective against Wildcats leading scorer Gary Buchanan until late
in the game. Buchanan scored 20 points, just about his 19.2
average, but had only eight points when Pittsburgh opened an
18-point lead with 5½ minutes remaining.
"I wasn't letting up on him," Page said. "I wouldn't let him
get to the ball and he started backing away. But he came back
aggressive in the second half."
Ricky Wright and Brooks Sales each had 10 points and Wright had
10 rebounds for Villanova (12-7, 4-5), playing the first of four
consecutive games against ranked teams. The Wildcats had won nine
of their previous 12 against Pittsburgh but are 6-16 at Pitt's
soon-to-close Fitzgerald Field House.