Plenty of teams have pre-Christmas letdowns, when they allow their minds to wander a bit against teams they're expected to beat. But in a lot of those cases the favored team is able to bounce back and do enough to eventually win the game. But that wasn't the case for #15 Pittsburgh, who turned the ball over 18 times against a team in Wagner that was talented enough to make them pay for those errors. Dan Hurley's Seahawks scored 14 points off of those turnovers and limited Pitt to 2-for-15 shooting in winning 59-54, the program's first win over a ranked opponent since 1978 (Alabama).
Latif Rivers led Wagner with 18 points but the player with just as big of an impact was guard Kenny Ortiz, who scored 12 points and dished out seven assists while also being the main man responsible for defending Ashton Gibbs. Gibbs, the preseason Big East Player of the Year, shot1-for-7 from beyond the arc and 5-for-16 overall in scoring 14 points while turning the ball over four times (one assist). Pittsburgh's turnover count was their highest since losing point guard Tray Woodall to groin and abdominal injuries following a win over Duquesne at the end of November, and when combining that with a clear lack of energy and focus it wasn't hard to see why Pitt lost (in addition to what Wagner did to make it happen).
"They pressured us and we didn't have a turnover in the backcourt, but in the second half we had a lot of turnovers that hard to understand," said Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon after the game. "We didn't play well and we got what we deserved."
While the offense will be the primary focus of the critiques on the Panthers' play against Wagner, the long-term concern has to be their perimeter defense as Woodall will improve their execution on the other end of the floor. With Ortiz, Rivers and Tyler Murray (12 points), Wagner was able to spread out the Pitt defense and take advantage of the gaps that resulted, leading by as many as 12 in the second half before the Panthers would look to rally for the win. But for every charge that Pittsburgh made the Seahawks, expected to be one of the contenders in the NEC, had an answer. As a result they've given themselves and the Staten Island school an early Christmas present no one expected beforehand.
"This is big for us as individuals and as a team," said Rivers. "When you play a top ranked team and can come into their home court and come out with the win, that's big."
Other Notable Happenings
1. Pierre Jackson makes the big plays late to lead Baylor past West Virginia.
We all know what the big question regarding the Baylor Bears is, and it will likely hover over Scott Drew's squad throughout the season. But the question about whether or not they had the guard play required to be a national title contender received quite the answer from junior Pierre Jackson. Jackson scored a team-high 23 points, including the game-tying three late in regulation, to go along with five rebounds, four assists and three steals to lead Baylor to an 83-81 overtime win over West Virginia in the title game of the Las Vegas Classic. Also big for the Bears was Boston College transfer Brady Heslip, who knocked down five of seven from beyond the arc and scored 19 points.
With Gary Franklin adding eight points in 22 minutes and A.J. Walton finishing with four assists the backcourt played pretty well in the victory. West Virginia had a chance to tie the game at the end of overtime but Jabarie Hinds' shot fell short as time expired. Kevin Jones was outstanding for the Mountaineers as he scored 28 points and grabbed 17 rebounds against one of the best frontcourts in America. Hinds added 18 points and seven assists while Truck Bryant scored 16, and the Mountaineers out-rebounded Baylor 39-36 with 15 offensive rebounds. But with guard play being key late, it was Baylor whose guards stepped up. That's a good sign for the Bears moving forward.
2. Josten Thomas' bucket results in the first three-game skid of the Chris Mack era at Xavier.
Chris Mack's team, which had its starting backcourt of Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons on the floor together for the first time since their win over Cincinnati, led by as many as 12 points early in the second half and looked to be a good bet to beat host Hawaii at the Diamond Head Classic. But the offense bogged down in the second half as the Musketeers shot just 40.6% from the field in the final 20 minutes of regulation. Gib Arnold's Warriors took advantage of this to force overtime, and Josten Thomas' basket with eight tenths of a second remaining proved to be the difference in Hawaii's 84-82 win.
The loss makes three straight for Xavier, the first such streak in Mack's tenure at his alma mater. They'll get Dezmine Wells back after the final game of this event but even with the suspensions no one envisioned Xavier dropping their first two games of the event. What's become apparent in the aftermath of the brawl with rival Cincinnati is that the Musketeers lost all momentum gained from such an emphatic victory that moved them to 8-0 at the time. This is a talented team for sure, but they've got some work to do when it comes to regaining their confidence, and there's no better way to start that process than to end their trip to Hawaii with a good showing against Southern Illinois on Sunday.
3. UNLV controls the game from start to finish in whipping California.
Everyone knew how big of a game this was for both California and the Pac-12, with both entities being short on marquee victories. But the best thing that may have come out of their 85-68 loss to #21 UNLV is the fact that this could be their final game of the regular season against a ranked opponent. Cal has played two games against ranked teams and lost by a combined 56 points, and they haven't really been in either game (Missouri in Kansas City being the other). Anthony Marshall was too much for the Golden Bears as he led four Runnin' Rebels in double figures with 22 points and nine rebounds, and UNLV assisted on 22 of their 34 baskets while also out-rebounding a Cal team without the injured Richard Solomon 46-37.
But to be fair even if Solomon were out on the court it likely would not have mattered, as UNLV would take a 46-26 lead into the half. Cal shot just 32% in the first half while UNLV made 54% of their shots and assisted on 14 of their 19 field goals. To their credit Cal fought back to within 13 in the second half, but it was essentially "name your score" time at Thomas & Mack. UNLV had the look of a contender in the Mountain West alongside the likes of New Mexico and San Diego State, handing Cal and the Pac-12 another blemish neither the team nor the conference could afford at this point.
1. Angel Rodriguez scored 11 of his 16 points in the second half to help lead Kansas State past UTEP 78-70 in the semis of the Diamond Head Classic. Will Spradling added 11 and Jamar Samuels posted a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds.
2. Larry Anderson scored 16 points to lead three players in double figures as Long Beach State beat Auburn 64-43 to advance to Sunday's title game against Kansas State. Dan Monson's team was the better squad throughout and pulled away in the second half with a 16-0 run.
3. Is UCLA starting to figure things out? They capped a five-game stretch leading into Pac-12 play with a 71-63 win over Richmond, moving to 7-5 on the season. Jeremy Anderson accounted for 13 points, seven rebounds and six assists as five Bruins finished in double figures. As guys begin to step up offensively Ben Howland may be able to find more minutes for Anthony Stover, his best frontcourt defender. Stover played just seven minutes on Friday.
4. Pe'Shon Howard made his highly-anticipated season debut for Maryland, playing 32 minutes (seven points, three rebounds) in Maryland's 65-60 win over Radford. With Howard back and big man Alex Len slated to make his debut in Maryland's next game, Mark Turgeon will receive a much-needed boost in the depth department.
5. Bryce Cotton scored 16 second-half points and hit two three-pointers in an 8-0 run that set in motion Providence pulling away to beat in-state rival Rhode Island 80-61. The debut of transfers Andre Malons and Billy Baron provided a spark early for the Rams, but they were unable to sustain the momentum and fell to 1-11. The Friars finish non-conference play 11-2, and snapped an eight-game losing streak for the road team in this series.
6. Russ Smith scored 23 points while also tallying three rebounds, three assists and two steals at Louisville rallied to beat Western Kentucky 70-60 to remain undefeated. One of the best decisions of the off-season in college basketball may have been Rick Pitino's decision to no longer attempt to shoehorn Smith into the point guard position. He's far more effective at the two despite his height, and has had a major impact in the last two wins.
7. John Groce's Ohio Bobcats moved to 11-1 on the season with an 82-66 win over North Carolina A&T. Nick Kellogg and Walter Offutt scored 14 points apiece while Ivo Baltic added 12 for the Bobcats, who have won eight straight games.
8. Keep an eye on Penn in the Ivy League, as they've got one of the best point guards around in senior Zack Rosen. Rosen scored 13 points and dished out 12 assists while Tyler Bernardini knocked down eight three-pointers and scored 30 points for the Quakers, who had all five starters score in double figures as they beat Marist 84-71. Harvard is the clear favorite but look for Jerome Allen's team to put up a good fight.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Kevin Jones (West Virginia)
28 points, 17 rebounds and two assists in the Mountaineers' 83-81 overtime loss to #7 Baylor in Las Vegas.
2. G/F Alex Young (IUPUI)
27 points, six assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocks in the Jaguars' 97-88 win over Valparaiso.
3. G Jordan Theodore (Seton Hall)
26 points, six assists, four rebounds and two steals in the Pirates' 80-61 win at Longwood.