GREENSBORO, N.C. – Jamie Dixon doesn’t know whether a 29-point victory over Wake Forest in Pitt’s inaugural ACC Tournament game or 24 victories, half of them in the ACC, will get his Panthers into the NCAA Tournament.
Nor does the Pitt coach care.
What Dixon does know and care about is that his Panthers are finally healthy and playing their best basketball of the season.
That was evident in fifth-seeded Pitt’s 84-55 victory over No. 12 seed Wake Forest on Thursday in a second-round game before 21,533 at Greensboro Coliseum.
“We’ve done a great job of that down the stretch,” Dixon said. “We had our two best players playing at not even close to full speed.”
Pitt (24-8), which has won four of its past five games, advanced to the quarterfinals at 2 p.m. Friday against fourth-seeded North Carolina (23-8). The Tar Heels defeated the Panthers, 75-71, Feb. 15 in Chapel Hill.
“It’s a big motivation, especially after they beat you,” Pitt star Lamar Patterson said. “You want to get that a˜W’ back”
That Patterson and fellow fifth-year senior Talib Zanna, bothered by midseason injuries, dominated the Demon Deacons was a promising sign for the Panthers. Pitt’s 39 first-half points were its second-most in ACC play â” it had 40 in an 80-65 victory over Wake Forest on Jan. 11 â” and provided a 14-point halftime margin.
“They hit us right between the eyes,” Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik said, “and we were on our heels throughout the entire game.”
Patterson, a second-team All-ACC pick, scored a game-high 24 points on 8 of 13 shooting, including four 3s, with five rebounds, four assists and two steals.
Zanna, an All-ACC honorable mention, scored 15 of his 17 points in the first half in his most complete game of the season: 8 of 10 shooting, with nine rebounds, three assists, three steals and a blocked shot.
“To have everybody as healthy as they are is truly a blessing for us,” sophomore point guard James Robinson said. “Our seniors are carrying us. We just want to keep winning for them.”
Pitt went through a span where it lost four of six games after Zanna injured his right ankle in a last-second loss to Virginia and Patterson hurt the thumb on his right (shooting) hand at Miami.
Zanna became less effective, as he struggled to finish inside. He has averaged 15.2 points in the last five games.
“It was really hurting,” Zanna said, “and I couldn’t do nothing about it.”
Patterson averaged 21.4 points over the past five games.
“It makes a big difference,” Patterson said. “At the time, I probably would have said it’s not making a difference but it definitely is. I’m more confident. I don’t feel pain when I catch the ball or pass the ball or shoot it. I feel at my best right now, and I think everyone feels the same way. Mentally, I think we’re at our best, also.”
Now, Pitt has a chance to answer its critics who continue to challenge its NCAA Tournament resume by pointing out that the Panthers have yet to beat a ranked opponent. North Carolina is ranked No. 15, and the Tar Heels had a 12-game winning streak before losing their finale at Duke.
“Watching ESPN, they keep saying, – Pittsburgh is on the bubble,” Zanna said. “We’re not worried about it. It is a motivation. If we take care of our business in this ACC Tournament, they’re all going to look bad in what they say.”
“So, we’re not even worried about it. Our goal is to win this ACC Tournament, just to make a statement.”