PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Delaware State became the second team in three
days to learn that 7-foot Pitt center Aaron Gray is going to be a
difficult matchup all season, especially for teams that lack size
or a strong inside defender.
Ronald Ramon's 3-pointer finished off a 9-0 run keyed by Gray
that gave Pittsburgh (No. 5 ESPN/USA Today; No. 4 AP) an early 12-point lead and the Panthers
wore down Delaware State with their size and depth, winning 67-50
Gray, the Big East's preseason player of the year, scored nine
of his 17 points during the breakout start that gave Pittsburgh
(2-0) a 23-11 lead. Gray had eight rebounds and proved tough to
defend for Delaware State (1-1), an NIT team last season that has
only one starter taller than 6-6.
"You'll never find anyone in our league as big and strong and
talented as he is," Delaware State coach Greg Jackson said of
Gray, who had 10 points and 13 rebounds Sunday in an 86-67 decision
over Western Michigan.
Mike Cook, an East Carolina transfer, added 13 points and 6-9
Levon Kendall and Antonio Graves had 10 each. Ramon hit three
3-pointers for his 9 points, and Levance Fields had eight assists --
many on throw-ins to Gray.
"You just have to put it up there so he can get it -- and they
can't -- and he puts it in there," Fields said.
Whenever Delaware State pushed to get back into the game, Pitt
responded with a flurry or a momentum-stopping basket. The Hornets
cut it to 34-27 late in the first half, but Fields hit a 3-pointer
off Gray's pass with 3 seconds left before halftime.
Delaware State got within 39-30 early in the second half, but
Pitt scored 11 of the next 15 points to make it 50-34.
"They don't have many big guys, and we wore them down,"
The final score might not have been as one-sided as the Panthers
would have liked, but they were never seriously pushed in winning
their 10th consecutive home opener. They are 38-1 at home against
non-conference opponents since moving into the Petersen Events
Center in 2002 and have never lost to a Mid-Eastern Athletic
Conference team in 15 games.
Delaware State isn't a marquee opponent, but is part of an
upgrading of Pitt's once-soft early season schedule. The Panthers
moved to play better teams after being seeded only fifth in their
NCAA regional last season despite reaching the Big East tournament
championship game during a 25-win season.
The game was Jamie Dixon's 100th as Pitt's coach. He has a 78-22
record in four seasons.
"That's what coach Dixon has been alluding to, that we're going
to play a lot of teams that are going to be at the top of their
conferences," Kendall said. "We knew they were going to hold the
ball, and they ran down the shot clock almost every time they had
the ball. It forced us to be patient and it's good preparation for
down the road."
So will three games in three days this weekend, when Pitt plays
Northeastern, Massachusetts and Oakland in late-afternoon home
games Friday through Sunday. The games are part of an exempt
tournament and allow Pitt to replicate the compact schedule of the
Big East tournament -- last March, the Panthers played four games in
four days in New York City.
"It's going to be a good test of where we're at conditioning
wise, to see if we get tired," Gray said.
Delaware State was 21-14 last season and is favored to win its
third consecutive MEAC regular season title, despite a tough
schedule. Tuesday's game was the first of 14 in a row on the road
for the Hornets, who don't play at home again until Jan. 13 and
have only 10 home games all season.
"We're used to it," Jackson said. "We play a schedule like
that every season."
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