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Panther Hollow: Bench Driving Pitt Closer To Poll Position

PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) -- Bleat all you want about the infirmity of their non-conference schedule, but the Panthers continue to gather national attention, and it's because they taught one of the locals a lesson on Saturday.

Not only is this a talented Pitt team, but, at its best, it shall also be a deep one.

"I'm a voter for the top 25, and I voted for Pitt the last two weeks," said North Florida head coach Matt Driscoll. "I did it not because of my heart, but because of my head. Anytime you lead the country in assists, it tells you that you have a great group of guys...that have a great décor about themselves. They share the sugar so well, and the thing they do well that you guys should appreciate, but probably don't, is they could take a lot more shots, especially when they get in close, but they are always looking to pass the ball."

Pitt remains the national front-runner in assist-to-turnover ratio, which was 4.20 in its fifth consecutive win. In any event, the diplomacy of the former Bellevue resident will not go unappreciated.

With help from his bench, Jamie Dixon's 9-1 squad did not crack the new AP poll, but it did engineer a drubbing of North Florida, 89-47, at the Petersen Events Center, and it did reach No. 22 on the new Top-25-And-One Rankings, one of six Big East teams to be ranked.

Senior forward Dante Taylor punctuated the victory with his own offensive outburst, capping a game-best 16-point effort (7-of-9 in the field, 2-for-2 at the line) in the final moments.

So disciplined was his play, and that of his fellow reserves, that North Florida became the first opponent in program history not to be awarded a single free throw.

"I didn't think that was possible," the McDonald's All-American said with a toothy grin.

He may have been a controversial player these past four years, but least he's an honest one.

"It just shows how we picked it up on D," Taylor added, with more candor. "We try to play physical, but smart at the same time. We knew that with this team, all we had to do was play with our hands up, and make them take tough shots. We were able to do that tonight."

So stifling was their defense that North Florida managed just three buckets in the last 12 minutes and went cold for the last 3:42, but really, the Panthers put a paw down once they slipped into a 27-27 tie with 5:43 left in the first half.

Redshirt sophomore guard Cameron Wright put up ten points (5-of-9) on the night and contributed to a pivotal 12-0 run at the time, and made three steals. Like Taylor, who also had three, he reached season-highs in both columns.

"Coach Dixon stressed defense, and, looking at the stat sheet, they shot 48 percent in the first half, and 30 in the second," Wright said. "That was the whole talk in the locker room. We had to rebound better. We were down by two at the half, I believe, and we picked it up."

Ultimately, the Panthers did indeed out-execute the Ospreys off the glass by a 35-21 margin, with their bench accounting for 18 boards.

Dixon's bench, which entered the contest outscoring opposing benches 25.6-12.6, held a 34-11 advantage over that of UNF.

"We've had pretty good minutes from those guys all the way through, but I think Cameron, Durand [Johnson], and [Trey] Zeigler's development and growth is critical, and, as I've said before, Zeigler's new, Durand's a freshman, and Cameron's now practicing with us every day," he elaborated. "Those are really the three, and if you knew everything that was going on, you would recognize that's pretty much three new guys that are finding ways to improve, and we're excited about them. It's good that they got to play a lot of minutes as well."

If their future minutes are of equally high quality, it will mean Pitt has plenty of fresh bodies to handle the brutality of Big East play, and it will mean the Panthers won't be an AP also-ran again for much longer.

"We have a unique situation with our walk-ons both redshirting, so we don't have walk-ons to put out there, so we have ten guys, and they're all good players. We were able to really just stay with what we do."

(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)

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