Wagner hands Pittsburgh first-ever loss to NEC team

PITTSBURGH -- When Danny Hurley took over at Wagner a year ago, he pledged to turn the woeful Seahawks around with a mixture of toughness and grit, qualities that are synonymous with the family name.

Consider his rebuilding project well ahead of schedule.

Latif Rivers scored all 18 of his points in the second half -- including six free throws in the final minute -- to lead the Seahawks to a stunning 59-54 victory over Pittsburgh (No. 13 ESPN/USA Today, No. 15 AP) on Friday night.

"We've got good players, we practice really hard and I think our guys feel like they deserve wins like this and moments like this," Hurley said.

Wagner, which went 5-26 the season before Hurley arrived, certainly played like it.

Controlling the tempo and making Pitt work hard at both ends of the court, the Seahawks (8-3) beat a ranked opponent for the first time since knocking off then-No. 15 Alabama on Nov. 24, 1978.

Pitt (11-2) saw its nine-game winning streak snapped in emphatic fashion. Ashton Gibbs scored 14 points for the Panthers, but Pitt shot 40 percent from the field and turned it over 18 times while losing to a Northeastern Conference opponent for the first time ever.

"It's very big for us," Wagner guard Kenneth Ortiz said. "You know the Big East is one of the biggest conferences. Us being a mid-major, this is something big. Everyone wants to be top-ranked. We wanted to get it, we got our chance and we made the best of it."

The Panthers came in 70-0 all-time against NEC foes, but never led over the game's final 33 minutes.

"It's definitely not the way we want to play," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We definitely took a step backwards."

Pitt has been nearly unbeatable in nonconference games since the Petersen Events Center opened in 2002. The Panthers had lost just one non-Big East game in the arena's first nine seasons. Now they have dropped two in the span of five weeks.

Long Beach State raced past Pitt 86-76 on Nov. 16, blistering the Panthers with a dizzying uptempo attack.

Wagner went the opposite way, working the shot clock and spreading the floor while trying to wear down Pitt's depleted backcourt. The Panthers are playing without starting point guard Travon Woodall, who is nursing groin and abdominal injuries.

Gibbs has taken over the majority of the ballhandling duties, and it has worn him down. He missed his first seven shots and finished just 5 of 16 from the field with four turnovers.

"We felt like them not having Travon would be a big advantage for us," Hurley said. "They were kind of laboring getting the ball up the court. Even on possessions where we weren't really rattling them, we wanted them to have a short clock."

The victory also proved a bit bittersweet for Hurley, who twice turned down opportunities to join Dixon's staff at Pitt. Hurley had served as an assistant coach at Rutgers before becoming a prominent high school coach in New Jersey. As appreciative as he was of Dixon's offer, Hurley knew when he got back into the collegiate ranks, he wanted to run his own show.

Along with his brother and assistant coach Bobby -- who starred at Duke 20 years ago -- Hurley has the tiny Staten Island, N.Y., school rapidly rising to respectability thanks to an upgraded roster and newfound confidence.

The Seahawks played fearlessly, not panicking after the Panthers built a 9-2 lead.

Ortiz and Tyler Murray outplayed backcourt counterparts Gibbs and Cameron Wright, with Ortiz getting out in transition to capitalize on sloppy ballhandling by the Panthers.

Gibbs, the preseason Big East Player of the Year, entered the game shooting just 36 percent from the field since Woodall's injury, and missed all seven of his shots in the first half. Ortiz had no such issues, going a perfect 5 of 5 to help Wagner take a 29-25 halftime lead, the first time the Panthers have trailed at the half since losing to Long Beach State in the third game of the season.

And Wagner -- just like the 49ers -- proved it wasn't a fluke.

Rivers shook of a rough first half to score seven quick points as the Seahawks went ahead 44-32. Pitt clamped down defensively but couldn't take advantage at the other end of the court.

Gibbs put together a brief hot streak to get the Panthers back in it, but every time Pitt appeared ready to take control, Wagner would respond with a big shot.

Pitt drew as close as three points twice in the final 36 seconds but couldn't get over the top. Rivers hit six straight free throws down the stretch and the Seahawks poured onto the court in celebration after the program's biggest victory in 33 years.

"I said to the coaches and I'll say to the players to make sure you have your phones charged, because you're going to get a lot of texts and a lot of calls," Hurley said.

Meanwhile, the Panthers search for answers.

The defending Big East regular season champions open conference play at Notre Dame next Tuesday. They hoped to come in on a high. Instead, they're left wondering how to get back on track.

"It's something we can grow from," Pitt forward Lamar Patterson said. "We've got to learn from our mistakes today."