Well that did not go according to plan at all.
I was under the foolish assumption that, having spent the previous evening dominating a Robert Morris squad that won 24 games the year before, Lehigh would really give Pitt a run for their money. Instead, I saw the matchup that the on-paper stats would have suggested. Lehigh had no answer all night for Pitt's size and depth on the interior, and eventually just wore down.
Lehigh hung with the Panthers throughout the first half, especially whenever Pitt altered their lineup to go small, but they just didn't have the right combination of size, experience and depth to keep up when both Talib Zanna and Steven Adams were on the floor.
This was even more evident when, with 5:24 left in the first half, CJ McCollum took a cheap foul (his second) and sat on the bench for roughly four minutes -- this was no doubt key to the 8-3 run Pitt rattled off to stake a 35-30 halftime lead. That was followed by a 14-4 Panther run to open the second half, and suddenly the game was more or less out of hand.
"I think we wore down a little to be honest," said Lehigh coach Brett Reed. "This was our third game in five days, the same as them, but their physicality really matters more after that. I give them the utmost credit being able to make plays."
Reed pointed to junior forward Zanna, who finished the night with 20 points and only missed one free throw and one field goal, as the key to Pitt's success.
"His mid-range game was really difficult for us to guard," Reed said. "If not for that, the interior would have been much easier to guard. It meant more rotations for us and left us exposed. He did a great job making shots with confidence."
Reed also talked about center Gabe Knutson, who is still recovering from a knee injury but appears to be making steady progress.
"After our game yesterday Gabe's knee was a concern. He had given everything and we were happy that he was able to not be favoring it, and he felt good throughout the course of the day. (Tonight) he wasn't at 100% and wasn't able to explode as usual."
Knutson expressed little concern over the injury postgame, and was more focused on the benefits of playing a team like Pitt as preparation for league play.
"I was good enough to be out there, and I don't think it was holding me out," Knutson said. "We obviously want to win now, but if we can improve on this and win in league play, that's where it really counts."
A visibly upset McCollum talked about the strong defense he faced from the Panthers, as he finished the night with 17 points but was essentially a non-factor after scoring the Hawks' first two baskets with little effort.
"We've gotta do a better job finishing games," McCollum said. " We allowed too many rebounds, too many runs. We've got to make sure we're helping Gabe down low. Their depth killed us on the inside."
Despite the result, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon was impressed with their play and doesn't think their Patriot League status has changed. He even pointed to Knutson as their most important player rather than McCollum.
"I don't know if Gabe was 100 percent, but they're a different team when he is," Dixon said. "With him back, I see no reason they shouldn't win their league again."