Pitt shakes cold spell, rallies to finish off St. John's late

PITTSBURGH -- The shots weren't dropping and No. 17 Pittsburgh was being pushed around inside by unranked St. John's. A two-game Panthers losing streak was starting to look like it might become a rare three-game slide.

At least until the Panthers did what they've done most of this season when games are in doubt: They clamped down defensively and made their free throws.

Ashton Gibbs and Gary McGhee scored key baskets to start a game-ending 9-1 run and Pittsburgh overcame some poor shooting and a large rebounding disparity for a 63-53 victory over St. John's on Thursday night.

Brad Wanamaker scored 16 points, Gibbs added 14 points and McGhee scored eight of his 10 points in the second half as the Panthers (16-4, 6-2 Big East) rallied from a six-point deficit to end their first two-game skid in nearly two years.

"It's the Big East. Everybody's coming back. There's no lead that's safe, especially playing on somebody's home court," Red Storm coach Norm Roberts said. "They're a very good defensive team and they made some big shots. Shots they didn't make in the first half they made in the second half."

Justin Burrell scored 14 points and Dwight Hardy had 12 despite making only three of 10 shots for St. John's (12-8, 2-6), which lost its seventh in 10 games.

The Red Storm trailed only 54-52 after D.J. Kennedy's two free throws with 1:56 to play. But Gibbs hit a 15-footer from the left wing to put Pitt back up by four and, after Burrell drew an offensive foul, McGhee dunked with a minute remaining to make it 58-52.

The Panthers finished it off at the foul line, where they were 21 of 24. They shot 40 percent (20 of 50) from the field -- 52.2 percent (12 of 23) in the second half -- after being in the low 30s for the first 30 minutes.

The Red Storm outrebounded Pitt 41-31 but shot 32.8 percent (19 of 58), 26.7 percent (8 of 30) in the second half.

"I thought we did it with our defense, which was good and what we wanted," Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. "We had a much better performance in the defensive end, contesting shots and in transition, and we didn't turn it over."

The Panthers had nine turnovers, six fewer than St. John's and 11 fewer than they had in losing at Seton Hall 64-61 on Sunday.

"We were more intense [defensively], more on the same page, and we were talking more -- something we didn't do the last couple of games -- and they shot a bad percentage," Wanamaker said. "We got back in the flow and hopefully it will carry on to the next game."

Wanamaker scored all but three of his 16 points in the second half.

Kennedy, a Pittsburgh high school teammate of ex-Pitt star DeJuan Blair who came in averaging 15.3 points, missed eight of 11 shots and finished with nine points and eight rebounds.

"He's a tough kid and wants to win so bad," Roberts said. "He probably was trying real hard, but I wouldn't say he was pressing."

St. John's led 32-26 early in the second half, but the Panthers -- whose 31-game home court winning streak ended with a 74-66 loss to Georgetown on Jan. 20 -- regained the lead at 40-39 on Gilbert Brown's two free throws.

McGhee scored the Panthers' next two baskets and finished in double figures for the first time in 13 games.

"It did feel good to get involved in the offensive end," McGhee said. "It helps us get guys open [when the ball comes inside] and we were looking for that tonight."

The Panthers finished off a 16-5 run with Wanamaker's baseline drive with 8 minutes remaining to go ahead 48-41 -- a surge that occurred without starting guard Jermaine Dixon, who injured his right ankle with 16:44 remaining and did not return. He missed the first eight games of the season after twice breaking his right foot during the summer.

Pitt has won its last six against St. John's on its home court by an average of 18 points, and the Red Storm haven't won in Pittsburgh since an 88-60 decision on Feb. 2, 1999.

The Panthers haven't lost three in a row since Feb. 15-24, 2008, and have done so only twice during Jamie Dixon's seven seasons as coach.