PHILADELPHIA -- Khem Birch was losing his bout with nerves. He had a turnover, a missed layup -- and suddenly some doubt -- only 30 seconds into his first career start.
The 6-foot-9 Canadian with a blond streak in his hair just needed one big block to swat away the angst and make an impact for Pitt.
Birch had a breakthrough game with 15 points and 10 rebounds to help Pittsburgh (No. 16 ESPN/USA Today, No. 17 AP) pull away late against pesky Penn for a 78-58 win in the Philly Hoop Group Classic on Friday night.
Ashton Gibbs scored 16 points to lead the Panthers (4-1) to the 20-point victory over inferior competition they badly needed after struggling the last three games. Pitt was upset at home by Long Beach State last week. Rider and La Salle gave the Panthers fits in two other games.
Pressed into service with starting center Dante Taylor out with migraines, Birch settled down and showed flashes of the game-changing plays he's expected to contribute. His 15 points were seven more than his season total over the first four games.
"As the game went on, I got into a flow," Birch said.
He found it midway through the first half.
Birch had a thunderous dunk, then a block on the next possession that led to a Pitt layup for a 28-18 lead.
Birch is just the second McDonald's All-American to sign with the Panthers. The Panthers lost three starters off a team that won the Big East regular-season title last winter, giving Birch the opportunity to quickly become part of the core that could eventually lead the Panthers to the Final Four.
"He's got a good feel, so there's things that you can grow with and build with," coach Jamie Dixon said. "That's something you can't teach."
The Panthers also played without starting small forward Lamar Patterson, who started a two-game suspension. Dixon said Patterson was suspended for disciplinary reasons. He also said Taylor was not suffering a concussion after taking a hit to the head in the Panthers' last game.
Pitt also lost forward Talib Zanna in the second half with an apparent knee injury. He slipped and was down on the court before he hobbled to a seat on the bench. He rubbed his right knee for several minutes. Dixon said Zanna was fine.
The pair hit consecutive 3s and Penn hung tight before the Panthers stretched the lead in front of a pro-Pitt crowd.
It just wasn't enough.
"Any time you've got a nationally ranked team on the floor, you have a chance to show you're made of," Penn coach Jerome Allen said.
The game was played at the Palestra, Penn's home court, but it was not much of a home game.
"Let's Go Pitt!" echoed throughout the old gym -- about 5,000 of the 6,843 fans were for the Panthers.
Some Pitt fans, who surely love their Steelers, chanted E-A-G-L-E-S! Eagles! for Philadelphia running back and former Pitt star LeSean McCoy.
"I think that's why sometimes teams don't want us to play in their big arenas, because we have so many alumni in those areas," Dixon said. "We had a lot of Pitt people here and it was great to see."
The Quakers, out of the Ivy League, kept firing 3s and stayed close when they connected. When Bernardini sank one that sliced the deficit to seven, Dixon punched his fist in the air in anger.
Dixon wasn't happy again after Rosen and Bernardini hit two straight 3-pointers that made it a nine-point game. Rosen buried one to make it 51-43.
"He's as good as any guard we'll play this year," Dixon said of Rosen.
Penn made 6 of 11 3s in the second half and outrebounded Pitt for the game, 32-30.
The fun ended for the Quakers when the shots went cold.
"We had a lot of lapses and our overall effort was not good," Rosen said.
The Panthers, who torched the Quakers inside for 13 layups in the first half, went outside to build their lead. Gibbs, who had three points at the break, hit a baseline 3 and Moore followed with one of his own to make it 59-47.
Nasir Robinson, of nearby Chester, Pa., punctuated the win with a fastbreak dunk that brought the Pitt fans to their feet.
Robinson scored 14 points and J.J. Moore had 12.