WASHINGTON, D.C. - Going into halftime of Thursday's NCAA Tournament second round game between Pittsburgh and North Carolina Asheville, a team that wasn't even in this year's tourney likely came into several Pitt fan's minds.
East Tennessee State.
Two years ago, Pitt nearly became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed and likely would have lost if ETSU hadn't shot 12-of-24 from the foul line in a 10-point loss that was much closer than the final score.
Thursday at the Verizon Center, Pitt led by just five at halftime and only 32-29 with 18:25 to play in the game.
Then Ashton Gibbs took over and erased any thoughts of East Tennessee State. Hopefully, for the Panthers' sake, he does just as good of a job erasing the long slump Pitt has had in its attempts to make the Final Four.
Pitt is one of just seven schools to reach the NCAA Tournament each of the past 10 years, but the longest any Panther team lasted is the Elite 8, in 2009.
Gibbs believes this year's team can change that.
"I'm very confident," Gibbs said. "We have to keep playing unselfish, keep playing on the defensive end and let that carry on our offense, and I think if we do that, we'll be all right."
Gibbs single-handedly helped Pitt avoid a repeat of ETSU by responding to Asheville pulling within three by scoring five straight points and finding Nasir Robinson for an easy layup.
In all, Gibbs scored 26 points, including six 3-pointers.
"Ashton obviously shot much better in the second half," Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. "I think that just kind of opened it up. I thought our defense was good throughout, but our offense kind of slowed us down in the first half."
The cliche phrase is that defense wins championships, but the lack of a prolific scorer has been what has cost Pitt a chance to play for one.
The 2009 team had NBA players Sam Young and DeJuan Blair along with the clutch Levance Fields, but none of those players had the explosive scoring ability Gibbs has shown. Along with his 3-point shooting ability, Gibbs is an excellent distributor of the ball and free-throw shooter.
For the season, entering Thursday's game, Gibbs was averaging 16.7 points per game, shooting 48 percent from beyond the arc and was nearly a 90-percent foul shooter.
"Gibbs is an outstanding shooter," UNC Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach said. "I'll tell you what, he's a quality player."
Sure, Pitt will win plenty of games with tough, physical play like it did Thursday, but at some point in the tournament, someone is going to have to score 35 points and hit a key shot.
In Gibbs, the Panthers have the best option they've had in a long time to do that.
"I think every team here, every player thinks that they have the ability to go and believe they will go to the Final Four," Dixon said. "Any team that's in this event has won so many games, has had a great year and I think every team has that belief."
Unlike most of those players and teams, Gibbs and the Panthers have the ability to make it happen.
Michael Boytim can be reached at email@example.com or 946-7521