Pitt’s path to NCAAs takes shape

For nearly 10 years, the Petersen Events Center gave the Pitt men’s basketball team an air of invincibility.

The Panthers had lost only 12 games prior to last season at the arena since it opened in 2002, but the shine of the new building began to fade during the 2011-2012 season.

Pitt lost seven games at home, including losses to Long Beach State and Northeast Conference foe Wagner. Earlier this season, the Panthers saw their 12-0 mark against teams in the top 10 at the Pete blemished by a setback against No. 8 Cincinnati.

Saturday the Panthers, along with 12,632 fans wearing gold “This is Our House” T-shirts, took a major step in restoring the Peterson Events Center as one of the toughest places to play in the NCAA.

Pittsburgh carried a two-point lead into halftime and controlled the majority of the second half during its 65-55 victory over No. 6 Syracuse.

The Panthers have looked good in flashes at home in Big East games this season, including the Cincinnati game in which they led by six at the half, but Pitt had been unable to finish any of its big games.

Woodall missed critical free throws against Cincinnati and in a 64-61 loss to Louisville Monday.

Pitt shot only 67 percent from the line Saturday, but Woodall was 5-for-5 in the final minute to pick up a signature win for the Panthers, who improved to 18-5 and 6-4 in the Big East.

The Panthers host Seton Hall Monday before starting a tough stretch at Cincinnati and Marquette – both teams that beat Pitt at the Pete this season – before hosting Notre Dame.

But even if Pitt lost all three games, it should be in great shape the make the NCAA Tournament a year after not only missing out on the Big Dance but the NIT as well.

Seton Hall, Villanova and South Florida at home are probable victories along with a season-ending road trip to DePaul. Pitt also has a road game at St. John’s in which it will likely be favored.

Having success in the NCAA Tournament, of course, has always been a challenge for the Panthers under coach Jamie Dixon.

In past years, the excuse of a tough, physical road through the Big East has been used to explain early exits, but this year’s team is 10 players deep, and all 10 contributed to Saturday’s big win.

The Pitt bench outscored Syracuse’s, 31-3, and every player that took the court for the Panthers scored.

Though the balanced scoring and minutes should keep Pitt fresh, Woodall was the only player that scored in double digits. As the Panthers play out the stretch, someone is going to have to step up as the man who will take the shot, down by one, with Pitt’s tournament life on the line.

Michael Boytim can be reached at or 946-7521