Defense helps Pitt beat Penn State

PITTSBURGH – Penn State men’s basketball coach Patrick Chambers often talks about winning plays that decide games against good teams.

Tuesday at the Petersen Events Center, it was Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna making that play against Chambers’ Lions, blocking D.J. Newbill’s layup with 2:55 to play and Penn State trailing by one.

Lamar Patterson corralled the deflection and found James Robinson for a fast-break layup that extended Pitt’s lead and began a 9-2 run that put the game away in the Panthers’ 78-69 victory.

“Talib, with his energy and play-making on both ends of the court, was something we really fed off of,” Patterson said. “As a team, we just kind of rallied around him.”

Chambers wasn’t so sure Zanna’s big play was legal.

“I thought I saw goaltending, but they saw differently,” Chambers said regarding the officials. “There are too many possessions during the course of a 40-minute game to blame it on that, though. It was a close call. I thought maybe it hit the backboard, but they didn’t see it that way.”

The block was just part of a huge second half for Zanna, who scored 14 of his 16 points in the final 19 minutes. The 6-foot-9 senior was a large reason Pitt outscored the Nittany Lions 24-12 in the paint during the second half after being beaten inside 16-8 in the first when Penn State carried a 30-28 advantage into the locker room.

“In the first half, we tried to force a lot of shots,” Zanna said. “In the second half, they went small so the paint was wide open, and I knew I could take my man one-on-one.”

The Panthers (8-0) began to find Zanna inside off dribble-drive penetration shortly after Penn State’s Tim Frazier picked up his third foul with 14:07 to play. Replays indicated Frazier was trying to back off contact and Pitt’s Cameron Wright appeared to slip.

Wright’s two free throws brought Pitt within one point, and Zanna gave the Panthers the lead on their next possession.

Penn State (6-3) fell behind by as many as seven before Frazier led the Lions back. The fifth-year senior assisted on Donovon Jack’s layup with 5:15 to play that put the Nittany Lions ahead by one. Frazier finished with a game-high 27 points, three assists and four rebounds on 10-of-17 shooting.

“[Frazier and Newbill] are definitely the best two guards we’ve played, and I don’t know that we’ll play two better guards,” Pitt coach Jaime Dixon said. “Old is good in college basketball, and those are two old guards. They have a lot of experience.”

That experience still wasn’t enough to combat Zanna and the Petersen Events Center crowd that fueled the Panthers to their 106thwin in 109 non-conference games at the arena.

“Having the Oakland Zoo behind you, it makes you feel almost invincible out there,” Patterson said. “They are so rowdy, and they’re a great fan section so it definitely provides a sixth man for us.”

Pitt had four players reach double digits in points, including Patterson, who along with Zanna led the team with 16. The Panthers bench outscored Penn State, 18-10.

“Talib was great, and Lamar hit a big 3-pointer that really gave them some energy,” Chambers said. “We looked like we wore down a little bit. We got a little tired at the end there, and that’s probably poor scheduling by me.”

Pitt won by single digits and trailed at halftime for the first time this season.

“It was not a good first half for us,” Dixon said. “I spent the whole halftime emphasizing how many assists we had. Three is not a good number for us. We were impatient and didn’t let things come.

“Fortunately we got going in the second half and did what we thought we could do. We thought we could get layups and drive it against them and we did that.”