PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh senior Ashton Gibbs is a happy man now that his backcourt mate, junior Tray Woodall, is back and healthy in the starting lineup. He’s almost as happy as Woodall, who recovered from a groin/abdominal strain to turn in one of his best performances of the season.
Woodall scored a career-high 29 points and Gibbs added 25 to lead Pittsburgh to a 79-70 win over Villanova on Sunday, its fourth straight win.
With Woodall hobbled, the Panthers stumbled to eight straight losses. He’s been a major factor in Pitt’s winning streak. Sunday was his second straight game with at least 24 points.
“It was hard for both of us and we’re both not used to losing,” Gibbs said of Woodall’s absence. “It’s great to have him back. He’s a great playmaker and scoring option as you can see. The best is yet to come still for him and the team.”
The Panthers (15-9, 4-7 Big East) led by as many as 18 in the second half, though the Wildcats (10-13, 3-8 Big East) were able to trim that lead to three on a pair of Jayvaughn Pinkston free throws with 22.3 seconds left.
Villanova, losers of three straight, couldn’t get any closer.
Woodall then snared a long pass and made the layup while Ty Johnson was called for an intentional foul. Woodall hit both free throws to seal the game.
“That was just eye contact between me and (Robinson),” Woodall said.
“We made eye contact on the inbounds play. When a young guy is guarding you, I want to play a lot smarter than him. I’ve been playing for some years now.”
Woodall and Gibbs combined to hit 19 of 19 free throws. Woodall made all 12 of his, and Gibbs made all seven of his. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said the two got on a roll early and showed how effective they can be together.
“I think people at this point know how good Tray is,” Dixon said. “I don’t think it’s any secret. Maybe it was four games ago. He was playing at a high, high level earlier in the year. Ashton’s shots were good shots, too, and everybody knows how good of a shooter he is.”
Maalik Wayns led Villanova with 18 points, with Dominic Cheek adding 13 and Mouphtaou Yarou 12. Dante Taylor added nine points for Pittsburgh. Wayns made just 7 of 22 shots. One miss was a 3-pointer with 35 seconds left when Villanova trailed 69-66.
“I got the shot I wanted and it didn’t go down,” Wayns said. “I think we’re right there. A couple more shots go down and a couple more layups fall, it’s a different game.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright said his team’s youth had a hand in its struggles. Of the six Wildcats playing at least 22 minutes, three were sophomores or younger.
“It’s inconsistency of inexperience,” Wright said. “We still play like an inexperienced team. We did some really good things hanging in there and not going away. But at the start of the second half, to foul like we did, that’s inexperience.”
Pittsburgh, which has used improved shooting to win its previous three games, struggled at the outset.
The Panthers made just one of their first eight shots — a game-opening 3-pointer by Lamar Patterson — and trailed 21-16 with 7:19 left in the first half. But Pitt would recover from that early slump to hit 12 of its next 15 shots and sprint away on a 22-2 run.
Both Gibbs and Woodall drilled a pair of 3’s during the run, and when Taylor was fouled on a dunk and made the ensuing free throw, the Panthers took a 38-23 lead. Pitt took a 40-28 halftime lead into the locker room despite committing nine turnovers and allowing the Wildcats to pull down 10 offensive rebounds.
Villanova, which missed its first six shots of the game, couldn’t match the Panthers’ hot shooting. The Wildcats shot just 30.3 percent in the first half (10 of 33), including 25 percent from 3-point range (2 of 8). Wayns, the team’s top scorer, made just 3 of 10 first-half shots.
After shooting 53.8 percent in the first half (14 of 26), the Panthers struggled in the second, shooting just 32 percent (8 of 25). But Pitt hit 27 of 31 free throws for the game, compared to 18 of 23 for Villanova.
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