Stan Heath has had his share of memorable wins against Pittsburgh. His chance at another one slipped away in the second half Wednesday night.
Tray Woodall scored 14 points and No. 23 Pitt beat South Florida 64-44 on Wednesday night to hand the struggling Bulls their 10th consecutive loss.
Victor Rudd had 16 points to pace the Bulls (10-17, 1-14 Big East), who were leading when the Panthers (22-7, 10-6) began a 16-0 run 4:42 into the second half.
"Our team got off to a good start, but we just couldn't sustain it," said Heath, the coach whose Kent State team beat Pitt to reach a regional final in the NCAA tournament 11 years ago. "We got it for about 28 minutes, close to 30 minutes - and then it seemed like we had a hard time finishing plays and we just couldn't get anything going offensively."
Dante Taylor had 12 points and 10 rebounds, and 10 players scored in all for the balanced Panthers, who were swept by the Bulls last season.
That was the only time South Florida has made the NCAA tournament since it joined the Big East - and the only time Pitt has missed out during that span.
Heath was memorably beaming and overjoyed as he entered the media room at the Petersen Events Center on Feb. 19, 2012, after his team tied a school record with its fourth straight Big East win and set a new mark with 10 Big East victories in all.
One year and eight days later, he spoke in a decidedly different tone.
"We're going to continue to play hard and play to win, but it's tough," said Heath, whose team has lost 14 of 15.
"It's hard, but I give our kids a lot of credit - every day they get at it in practice. We just had a little 'bye week,' and I thought we had some of our best days of practice."
That showed early, when the Bulls took a 14-6 lead 7½ minutes in on a reverse alley-oop by Jawanza Poland. That silenced a Petersen Events Center crowd that had watched the Panthers lose three of seven previous Big East homes games this season.
Pitt missed eight of its first 10 shots before J.J. Moore's 3-pointer cut the Bulls' lead in half at 14-11 a minute after Poland's dunk. Steven Adams' layup tied it 2½ minutes later. It wasn't until the second half, though, that Pitt took control.
"We just got into a rhythm," freshman guard James Robinson said. "We just were out there playing, having fun."
The Panthers were trailing when they ran off 16 straight points, beginning with Lamar Patterson's jumper 4:42 into the second half.
"Coach started giving us free range to go out and just play," Woodall said, complimenting coach Jamie Dixon's adjustment after Pitt shot 26.9 percent in the first half. "He wasn't calling out any plays - it was, 'Just go out and play basketball.' Some guys have never probably heard that from him this year. Go out and play, not call any sets."
Pitt has won nine of 12, remaining in the middle of the race for a double-bye in next month's conference tournament.
The Big East's leader in scoring defense, Pitt held South Florida to 31.9 percent shooting. The conference's worst scoring offense was held to 50 points or fewer for the eighth time in 15 Big East games. The Panthers have allowed 50 or fewer 10 times this season.
The teams combined to shoot 32.6 percent (14 for 43) in the first half but went divergent directions in the second half. South Florida missed 10 of its first 11 shots after halftime; Pitt made seven of its first 10.
"I thought we had a great performance from 10 guys," Dixon said. "It wasn't our best game, but South Florida's patience hindered us in the first half. I thought we responded well in the second half."
After Patterson finished a fast break for the first points of the second half to give Pitt a 28-25 lead, South Florida went on a 5-0 run to take its final lead. The Panthers responded with their run - the first five field goals coming from five different players.
"It was just, 'Play basketball,'" Dixon said. "They were sets, but it was more of a freelance-type thing, getting the ball moved from one side to another. That was the emphasis. I just wanted them to play basketball.
"I don't know they felt confident in that initially, but they did see the results and then I think they felt better about it."
Pitt coasted the rest of the way to pull within 1½ games of second-place Marquette in the Big East. The top four seeds earn the right to rest until the quarterfinals of the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. It will be the ACC-bound Panthers' final Big East tournament.
After the 16-0 Pitt run, South Florida could pull no closer than 10, on Anthony Collins' layup with 3:46 left.
"I felt good about it all the way down to the last 2 or 3 minutes," Rudd said.
Pitt will close out its Big East tenure having won at least 10 conference games in 11 of its final 12 seasons in the league.
The Panthers held a 42-25 edge in rebounds. Adams, a 7-foot freshman, had a career-high five of their six blocks.
South Florida has shot better than 43 percent just once since upsetting now-No. 7 Georgetown on Jan. 19.
"I thought we had good momentum to start the game, but we haven't been able to sustain it for 40 minutes," Heath said, before quickly adding: "Except when we play the first-place team in the league."
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