PITTSBURGH (AP) — Reeling Villanova figured its best chance for an upset at Pittsburgh was to slow down the game.
It just wasn’t enough, not with the Panthers on the brink of the Big East championship.
Ashton Gibbs had 18 points and No. 4 Pittsburgh clinched the outright conference title, using a big second half to beat No. 19 Villanova 60-50 on Saturday.
“They tried to hold out and basically break us down and make us force shots up in our offense while they remained patient,” Panthers senior Gilbert Brown said. “We had to really stay focused and stay patient and value every possession, because every possession and every shot mattered with the minimal possessions we had.”
Pitt (27-4, 15-3) earned its first outright Big East title in seven years and the No. 1 seed for next week’s conference tournament for the third time. Second-place Notre Dame put pressure on the Panthers with a 70-67 victory at Connecticut earlier Saturday, but Pitt was up to the task.
“We’re happy, but we realize that this is just the first checkpoint of what we want to do this year,” senior guard Brad Wanamaker said. “We focused on this, but after tonight, we’re just focused on New York and we gotta do down there.”
Brown, Nasir Robinson and Travon Woodall each had nine points for the Panthers, who won their first seven Big East games on the way to the wire-to-wire title.
Villanova senior guard and second-leading scorer Corey Stokes aggravated a left hamstring injury at practice Thursday and was ruled out of Saturday’s game earlier in the day. With leading scorer Corey Fisher already limited by severe tendonitis in his right knee, Villanova (21-10, 9-9) felt it had no choice but to take the air out of the ball.
“We just said there’s no way we’re going to go in there and outscore those guys without Corey,” coach Jay Wright said. “So we still ran our stuff; we just did it later in the clock, that’s all. We usually don’t like to do that.”
The Wildcats’ situation was exasperated when Fisher picked up his third foul with 1:35 to play in the first half. He finished with only seven points.
But Villanova managed to stay close behind Maalik Wayns, who had 23 of his career-high 27 points in the second half.
“I knew I had to be aggressive on offense,” said Wayns, who made five 3-pointers over the final 5:34 of the game. “Coach told me Stokes wasn’t playing, so I had to step it up on offense.”
Wayns made a 3-pointer on Villanova’s first possession after halftime as the Wildcats opened the second half with a 10-3 run to take a 28-25 lead. But Pitt responded with an 16-4 surge to grab the advantage for good.
Pittsburgh trailed 30-29 before reeling off nine straight points, highlighted by a Woodall putback that caused Wright to use a timeout, sending the sellout Senior Day crowd of 12,843 — fifth-largest on-campus crowd in Pitt history — into a frenzy.
“Coach (Jamie) Dixon was just stressing to use that we be patient,” Gibbs said. “He said the more patient we’d be, the more options we’d have.
“That’s what got us the win, patience.”
The Panthers continued an alarming recent trend of starting slowly — they’ve averaged only 24 1/2 points in the first half over the past four games — but rebounded to beat Villanova at home for the eighth consecutive time.
Pitt has won 24 of its last 25 games at the Petersen Events Center and has never lost to the Wildcats here. Villanova’s most recent win in Pittsburgh was Feb. 17, 1996, at Fitzgerald Fieldhouse.
The Panthers ended Villanova’s 47-game winning streak at The Pavillion with a 57-54 win last month.
The Big East title is Pitt’s fourth overall and third outright crown.
“(Winning the Big East) says a lot about us,” Dixon said. “And I think even our losses were really close.
“We won some close games early and finished it out, and we fought through some injuries and having guys out.”
The Wildcats were picked to finish second in the Big East in the preseason coaches’ poll but will be seeded either 10th or 11th at the conference tournament, pending the result of the Marquette-Seton Hall game later Saturday.
Wright said he isn’t sure whether Stokes will be available for Villanova’s first game in the conference tournament on Tuesday.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)