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Panthers pass tough road test

Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon wasn't surprised at all. Not by the tussle his No. 2 Panthers endured Saturday in Alumni Arena and not by the way his players responded to their toughest test of the season.

"Exactly what we thought it would be," Dixon said after the Panthers escaped with their 70-67 win over the University at Buffalo. "We knew how good [the Bulls] were and how well-coached they were. We handled it well and we withstood their rush. They were making shots. They were making plays and they continued to do it.

"I was very impressed with our poise and confidence in the huddles. We just handled things, never stopped believing and stayed with our stuff when other teams may have gone away from what they try to do."

"We did a great job of keeping our composure and staying together," added senior center Aaron Gray, the Big East's preseason player of the year. "We were in timeouts talking to each other. We weren't yelling."

The Panthers had trailed at halftime just once in their first nine games (by four points against Oakland in a game they won by 11). That was the only game they had been down by double digits at any point until they found real trouble Saturday.

Pittsburgh trailed by as many as 11 in the first half and the UB lead was still 10 with 12 1/2 minutes left. Then the Panthers finally clamped down on defense.

Pitt got aggressive on the perimeter, clogged the passing lanes and forced the Bulls into a jump-shot mentality. The Bulls managed just 14 points and five field goals over the final 14 minutes.

"In the first half, we were having mental breakdowns," said sophomore guard Levance Fields. "The second half we wanted to play a little bit more aggressive Pitt defense, bump them a little bit, get in the lanes and it seemed to work."

Don't think the tight game indicates Pitt played poorly. Far from it.

The Panthers hit 50 percent from the field and 16 of 23 from the free-throw line. They committed just eight turnovers. Four players scored in double figures and Gray had his seventh double-double of the season (19 points, 11 rebounds).

"It was a very well-played game," Dixon said. "How hard and aggressive that game was on the defensive end and to have both teams have eight turnovers? That's an amazing number."

Pitt (10-0), which figures to maintain its slot in the polls behind top-ranked UCLA, has won 21 straight non-conference games. Dixon, in fact, is 45-1 in non-conference play in his four years as head coach.

"We know we're going to get everyone's best shot," Gray said. "Being the No. 2 team, you put a target on your back but we enjoy that challenge. When you get into March and you're playing in the Big East Tournament or NCAA Tournament, you're going to get everybody's best shot, too."

Dixon said last week there were recruiting advantages to playing UB even though many of his coaching colleagues both inside and outside the Big East wondered why he'd take the risk of a road game at a Mid-American Conference school with 65 wins in the last three-plus seasons.

"It will help us when we recruit up here in Buffalo because we always do and we always will," Dixon said. "It was great to be here."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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