PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — Pittsburgh overcame a rare tough shooting night from the field and avoided a second straight upset by doing something a little unexpected: hitting free throws.
Ashton Gibbs scored 24 points and the No. 2 Panthers (20-2, 8-1 Big East) got 12 of their last 15 points from the free throw line in holding off pesky Rutgers 65-62 on Saturday night.
“I liked how we made plays down the end, especially the free throws,” coach Jamie Dixon said after the Panthers extended their run of 20-win seasons to 10. “We did what we wanted to do assignment-wise and defensively. We finished the game in a good way. They defended well, we defended well, but at end of game we made our free throws, took care of the ball and rebounded, things that we wanted to do.”
What Pittsburgh didn’t do was shoot well. It came into the game after scoring a season-low 51 points in a loss to Notre Dame on Monday and shot a season-worst 35.6 percent from the field. The Panthers came in shooting better than 48 percent, third best in the conference.
The free throws were the surprise. Pitt was averaging roughly 66 percent from the line, 14th best in the league. It shot 80 percent against foul-plagued Rutgers (12-9, 3-6), making 28 of 35, including 18 of 22 in the second half.
“It definitely was a key, coach Dixon has been stressing it in practice,” Gibbs said. “In between drills we shoot a lot of free throws, before we go into watch film we finish by shooting about 20 free throws. It’s definitely been a factor in our improving.”
The Panthers hit only one basket in the final 7:03 — a long 3-pointer by Gibbs with 55 seconds to play, and it was crucial in the game in which the Scarlet Knights kept coming back.
Rutgers got within a point at 58-57 when Mike Coburn hit the second of two free throws with 1:27 to play.
That’s when Gibbs struck from long range. With the shot clock running down, he took a pass from Gary McGhee and hit a 25-foot shot from right in front of the Panthers’ bench for a 61-57 lead.
“I just tried to move without the ball, get to the open area, Gary did a good job finding me,” Gibbs said. “It was a deep shot, I knew the shot clock was running down, I was confident and it went in.”
After Dane Miller made 1 of 2 free throws for Rutgers, Gibbs was fouled immediately and sank both foul shots for a 63-58 lead.
Coburn hit two free throws with 35.7 seconds left before Rutgers forced Lamar Patterson into a traveling call in the backcourt. Robert Lumpkins, whose previous college high was 11 at New Mexico State, hit a layup with 20.9 seconds left to close the gap to 63-62.
Brad Wanamaker was fouled as soon as Pittsburgh put the ball in play and made both free throws.
Rutgers tried to set up a game-tying 3-point attempt for guard James Beatty, but Pittsburgh defended that option and Miller had to toss up a long-range attempt that was well off target, giving the Panthers their 11th win in 12 games against Rutgers.
Rutgers coach Mike Rice, who was an assistant at Pitt under Dixon, said the last shot was another example of his team’s inexperience.
“It’s about winning plays, understanding what you have to do in winning games like this,” Rice said. “Somebody has to be our Ashton Gibbs and hit a shot like that. It’s winning time in the Big East, you have to have somebody come up and take charge.”
McGhee added 13 points for Pittsburgh and Wanamaker had nine, including seven free throws in the final 6:17.
Jonathan Mitchell, Coburn and Lumpkins had 12 points apiece for Rutgers, whose previous biggest upset came against then-No. 6 West Virginia in 1982.
Pittsburgh struggled against Rutgers’ tight defense and it didn’t take the lead for good until McGhee converted a three-point play with 11:46 left.
The Panthers hit 7 of 24 shots (29.2 percent) in falling behind 28-27 at the hald and finished 16 of 45 from the field.
Gibbs was Pittsburgh’s offense in the opening half, scoring 15 points on 5 of 9 shooting, including three 3-pointers.
Rutgers wasn’t much better, shooting roughly 37 percent. However, the Scarlet Knights made four of their first five shots in never trailing in the half.