Jan. 11, 2009
PITTSBURGH, Pa. (AP) -Just before the opening tip, Pittsburgh's punishing center DeJuan Blair jumped and performed a two-handed pullup on the rim.
The Panthers seem to like lofty views.
Blair scored 23 points with 18 rebounds and Jermaine Dixon added 17 points as Pittsburgh, playing for the first time as the nation's top-ranked hoop team, ran away from St. John's in the second half for a 90-67 win on Sunday over one of the few Big East Conference members not among the Top 25.
Leading by just five points at halftime, Pitt (15-0, 3-0 Big East) clamped down on defense and found its shooting range, knocking down three 3-pointers in a 17-4 spurt in the first seven minutes of the second half. By the time Blair came out for a rest with 8:47 left, the Panthers were up by 23 and putting on a show.
Game No. 1 as No. 1 went just fine.
"I thought we handled it well," coach Jamie Dixon said. "But we weren't as good as we could have been."
Levance Fields had 13 points and nine assists for the Panthers, who forced 24 turnovers, shot 58 percent after halftime, and after shaking off some early rustiness from an eight-day layoff, looked worthy of their newfound status as college basketball's team du jour.
"It's history, us being No. 1 for the first time," said Fields, Pitt's senior guard and floor leader. "But that's really all that it is. Just a little more scrutiny."
After a 60-year wait, and nearly more than a month since their last home game, the Panthers took the court at Petersen Events Center sitting atop The Associated Press poll. They intend to stay there as long as possible, but that will be easier said than done as a Big East minefield lies ahead.
The conference had nine teams ranked in the Top 25 last week, and after hosting unranked South Florida on Wednesday, Pitt will face Louisville, Syracuse, West Virginia, Villanova and Notre Dame - all currently in the poll - in succession before the month ends. Two more matchups with Connecticut will follow.
D.J. Kennedy, who won a Pennsylvania state high school title as Blair's teammate, scored 18 for the Red Storm (10-5, 1-2), who didn't have enough to withstand Pitt's second-half blitz.
"That's the Big East," St. John's coach Norm Roberts said. "You forget it and get ready to play the No. 5 team in America (Connecticut) next. That's our conference."
The Panthers, who ascended to the top of the rankings last Monday, were sloppy with the ball in the first half. They committed nine turnovers, missed eight free throws and looked tight. Pitt only led 41-36 at the break, and when Sean Evans hit a layup, St. John's was within 43-40 and an upset seemed brewing.
That's when Pitt went to work.
Dixon made a 3-pointer, Blair muscled inside for a rebound and putback and Fields and Sam Young hit consecutive 3-pointers as Pitt built a 56-42 lead.
When Blair went out for a breather, it was 73-50 and Pitt's 6-foot-7, 235-pound enforcer flapped his arms urging the Panthers faithful to cheer.
Moments later, Pitt's students tried out a new chant: "We're No. 1."
With center Justin Burrell's back bothering him, St. John's had no answer for Blair, known to his teammates as "Big Fella." Roberts joked that he has finally figured out a way to stop Pitt's big man.
"A Mack Truck," he said. "DeJuan Blair is an absolute beast. It seems like his mindset is, 'I'm going to get the ball.' We got physically worn down."
Before this week, Pittsburgh had never been ranked first in hoops and the school hadn't held down the top spot in football since 1982, when quarterback Dan Marino was slinging touchdown passes for the Panthers.
It was a proud day for Pitt and a big day for the sports-crazed city as the Steelers were hosting the San Diego Chargers in an AFC playoff game across town. There were more than a few Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and Jack Lambert jerseys mixed in among the 12,508 fans, which included several Pittsburgh football recruits.
Despite a starting lineup of four sophomores and a freshman, St. John's wasn't intimidated by Pitt's ranking or its rowdy student "Zoo" section.
With Kennedy and Quincy Roberts driving to the basket, the Red Storm got several easy layups inside and their aggressive man-to-man defense had the Panthers frustrated for much of the first half. Pitt's best offense seemed to be throwing the ball near the vicinity of the rim and hoping Blair could get it.
He scored 12 points with seven rebounds in the first half, but spent the final 3:50 on the bench after picking up his second foul.
Blair sat with the game tied 32-all, but while he was out the Panthers closed the first half with a 9-4 run, highlighted by dunks from Gilbert Brown and Young. Once Pitt hit its stride early in the second half, this Red Storm was no longer a threat.
"Their heads were down," Fields said. "They were out of it after a while. Even when it was close, I don't think they thought they had a chance."
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