PITTSBURGH (AP) – Every Pittsburgh opponent understands it must neutralize 7-footer Aaron Gray to have any chance of beating the Panthers. The problem is finding a way to do so, and no Pitt opponent has come close to accomplishing it yet.
Gray had 23 points and 13 rebounds and No. 4 Pittsburgh survived an early scare, rallying for a 66-55 win over Oakland, Mich.
Gray played less than half of Pitt’s 85-68 decision Saturday over Massachusetts because of a cut lip and foul problems, but was too strong and effective around the basket for Oakland (3-2) to handle in playing all but six minutes.
Gray had 15 points in the second half as Pitt came back after trailing 33-29 at the half.
“Aaron had to play only 17 minutes (Saturday), so maybe that helped him,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “We were able to execute four straight baskets to him in the second half, all on different plays.”
The Panthers (5-0) won their first four games by an average of nearly 20 points, but were pushed for the first time this season by Oakland, which returned four of its five starters from last season. Both teams were playing their third game in three days in the Colonial Athletic Association Classic.
“We were a little fatigued, and maybe we weren’t expecting them to come out quite as hard or to be as good as they were,” said Levon Kendall, who had 11 points and nine rebounds. “We came out flat in the first half and they were beating us to loose balls and playing harder than us.”
With the 6-8 Shawn Hopes controlling Gray early, the Grizzlies – picked fifth in the Mid-Continent Conference preseason coaches poll -opened a 25-15 lead in the first half and led 33-29 at the half.
But Pitt’s depth and strong inside play began wearing down the Grizzlies early in the second half, when Gray quickly took over by scoring six points in less than two minutes and 10 in slightly more than five minutes.
“That’s always one of our main emphases, to get the ball down low,” Gray said. “They were doubling me a lot in the first half and even in the second half, but coach Dixon has confidence in me to make good decisions and I got a few easy baskets. I started to really get confident and things worked out well for us.”
Pitt’s Mike Cook tied it at 39 with a short jumper five minutes into the half. Not long after that, Pitt went on a decisive 13-2 run keyed by Levance Fields’ 3-pointer, Gray’s layup and Kendall’s three-point play to take a 57-45 lead.
“We’re disappointed,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. “We had a chance to beat the No. (4) team in the country. We wanted to keep our defense at the same level it was in the first half, hang in there and hang in there and steal one on the road. … But we came out and gave up four easy baskets in a row to start the half, and we didn’t give up one of those in the first half.”
Oakland went 1-2 in Pittsburgh, beating Northeastern, but losing to Pitt and Massachusetts. Vova Severovas led Oakland with 17 points, with Erik Kangas adding 11 and Hopes 10.
The Colonial Classic tournament wraps up Friday when Pitt hosts Florida State, which also won its three on-campus games in the exempt tournament.
Dixon welcomed the chance to play so many games in little time – it was his team’s fifth game in eight days – to give his younger players an idea of how to handle the back-to-back games required in the Big East tournament in March.
“It’s great preparation for later down the road,” said Gray, chosen as the tournament MVP after scoring 61 points in the three games. “We took a few steps forward this weekend, but we realized we still have to work on some things.”
Pitt is 41-1 against non-conference opponents since the Petersen Events Center opened in 2002 and have won 62 of their last 63 games against non-Big East teams.