PITTSBURGH » All summer, his fellow coaches asked Pitt’s Jamie Dixon why he agreed to play an opponent like Rhode Island in the season opener. For most of last night’s game, Dixon was asking himself the same question.
Brad Wanamaker scored 24 points, Ashton Gibbs had 22 and No. 5 Pittsburgh survived an upset scare in the nation’s first Division I game of the season, rallying from eight points down to beat the Rams 83-75.
Pitt ended a sluggish first half in the 2K Sports Classic opener by scoring nine consecutive points over the final 1:21 after Rhode Island went ahead 36-28. The Panthers then wore down Rhode Island with their size, defense and the experienced play in the backcourt of Gibbs and Wanamaker to offset the Rams’ 14 3-pointers.
Delroy James scored 17 of his 20 points in the second half for Rhode Island, which trailed 76-74 with 1:41 to play before Pitt finished it off by making seven of eight free throws.
"There’s a reason why teams don’t want to play them, especially on Nov. 8," Dixon said. "You don’t want your first game to be against a team that presses and shoots 3s. They made some tough 3s and kept the game close, but we made free throws and got baskets when we needed to get them."
Pitt won its 14th consecutive season opener, eight under the former Hawaii assistant, and its 48th straight at home against a nonconference opponent. Gilbert Brown added 10 points and redshirt freshman Talib Zanna, starting for the injured Nasir Robinson, had nine points and 11 rebounds in his first college game.
Akeem Richmond scored 16 points, and Nikola Malesevic had 13 for Rhode Island, which lost despite making 14 of 31 from 3-point range to Pitt’s three of 16. The Rams, outrebounded 45-32, lost their 23rd straight to a ranked opponent and still haven’t beaten a top-5 team in 12 years.
Pitt knew Rhode Island wouldn’t be the usual rollover opponent that many ranked teams play in their opener, and the Rams — 26-10 last season while reaching the NIT semifinals — weren’t as their uptempo style and pressure defense kept it close.
"This felt like a tournament game," Wanamaker said. "It was intense, and usually you don’t play a team this good in the first game. But I think it will help us."
The Rams’ biggest lead came on Will Martell’s basket 90 seconds before halftime, but right about then Pitt began showing why it hasn’t won fewer than 25 games each of the past five seasons.
"We wanted to take it right at them, but sometimes that comes with the territory," Rhode Island coach Jim Baron said of the momentum-shifting run.
Gibbs converted a three-point play ahead of Wanamaker’s layup. Lamar Patterson’s first career basket, a dunk off Wanamaker’s feed, gave the Panthers a 37-36 halftime lead, their first since they led 13-11.
"We started making layups," Dixon said. "We charted that we missed nine layups in the first half. From that point on, we made them."
Still, Pitt — with four returning starters from its surprising 25-9 team of last season — never led by as many as three points until Gibbs’ steal and drive with 15:08 remaining made it 48-45. The teams traded leads nine times early in the second half, with Rhode Island’s final lead coming at 50-48 after James made two free throws and one of his five 3-pointers.
Travon Woodall’s free throw gave the Panthers the lead for good at 54-53, and they opened leads of as many as eight before two late 3-pointers by James made it close.
"You’ve got to take what they’re giving you, and they were giving us the 3," said James, who was recruited to Rhode Island by new Pitt assistant Pat Skerry.
No. 13 Illinois 79, UC Irvine 65
Reserve Brandon Paul, a sophomore guard, hit his first five 3-point attempts as the Illini opened a 42-18 halftime lead over UC Irvine last night in the opening round of the 2K Sports Classic.
He sparked what had been a sluggish Illinois offense, hitting on three straight early possessions.
While Paul and the Illini were finding their shooting stroke, UC Irvine hit six of its 26 first-half shots (23.1 percent).
UC Irvine opened the second half with more offensive life — helped by a dip in intensity from Illinois — and outscored the Illini 47-37 over the final 20 minutes.
The Anteaters cut the deficit to 49-34 with just under 15 minutes to play on Darren Moore’s 3-pointer.
Six minutes later he drove the lane to shave Illinois’ lead to 14.
Illinois quickly snuffed out any ideas about a comeback, scoring five points over the next 55 seconds.