Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon is getting production from one of his promising young big men. It's just not the one everybody thought.
Talib Zanna had 12 points and 14 rebounds to help the 15th-ranked Panthers ease by South Carolina State 69-55 on Saturday night, proving life should be just fine without highly touted freshman Khem Birch, who left the team this week to return to his native Canada.
Dixon declined to get into the specifics about Birch's decision, adding there's little chance of the 6-foot-9 center returning.
"We wish him well," Dixon said. "We're moving forward."
The development of Zanna and Lamar Patterson helps.
Patterson tied a career high with 16 points and Zanna provided a steadying presence in the middle after starters Nasir Robinson and Dante Taylor dealt with foul trouble.
"In the preseason he was our best big guy," Dixon said of Zanna. "He's given us very good minutes. I'm very comfortable with him and what he's doing. He's going to have some big games."
The Panthers (10-1) needed Zanna to be effective to win their eighth straight. South Carolina State (4-7) kept things interesting well into the second half behind guards Brandon Riley and Khalif Toombs.
Riley scored 17 of his 21 points in the first half and Toombs added 16 points while making all four of his 3-pointers as the Bulldogs proved to be a tough out, slowing the game down to limit possessions and keeping the hot-shooting Panthers in check.
Pitt came in making nearly 44 percent of its 3-pointers this season, sixth-best in the country, but went just 5 of 23 from 3-point range against South Carolina State's unorthodox zone defense.
Ashton Gibbs made just 2 of 12 shots from behind the arc but finished with 14 points and six assists while filling in at point guard for injured starter Travon Woodall.
"He's playing probably too many minutes given the situation," Dixon said of Gibbs. "But he makes everybody better. The other guys play better when Ashton is in there."
Patterson in particular.
The sophomore is improving game by game and showed off his maturity during a pivotal 13-3 second-half run that broke it open for Pittsburgh after South Carolina State pulled within one.
Patterson converted a putback and rolled in an acrobatic layup during the burst as Pitt built a 48-37 lead. The Bulldogs never got closer than nine the rest of the way.
Still, the Bulldogs made Pitt work for it as the Panthers looked a little sluggish following a week dealing with finals and Birch's sudden departure.
Birch had played well in spurts and seemed to be finding his footing in recent weeks, starting six straight games. While he had trouble getting into a rhythm offensively, his long frame and exquisite timing made him an effective defensive presence.
The Panthers could use him, but don't exactly sound like they're going to miss him.
"He's a freshman and he was starting, that says enough," Robins said. "I couldn't tell in his body language or anything. It just happened."
With Birch not around, Dixon turned to lightly used freshman Malcolm Gilbert.
The 6-foot-11 center came in having played all of one minute this season. He had five in the first half alone, looking jittery at times but then again, so did his teammates.
Pitt turned it over four times in the first eight minutes and didn't have any real control until Gibbs fueled a 9-0 surge that gave Pitt a 27-20 lead. The Bulldogs kept hanging around, and the Panthers needed a follow dunk by Gilbert just before the buzzer to take a 31-26 lead at the half.
Riley kept South Carolina State close early but was held to just four in the second half with Gibbs harassing him all over the Petersen Events Center.
With Riley under wraps, the Panthers used their size to take control. Pitt outrebounded the Bulldogs 41-29, leading to a 36-18 scoring edge in the paint even if the game-deciding run was more of a slow jog.
John Johnson's two free throws got Pitt started before Patterson went to work. Johnson later added a layup, JJ Moore hit a putback and Zanna tipped in a miss.
"I really thought we probably played as well as we could have played, with the exception of missing a number of pretty easy layups," South Carolina State coach Tim Carter said. "They did a great job of getting second tips on us. Their length really hurt us."
By the time Gibbs drilled a pullup jumper to make it 50-39, the Panthers were safe though their uneven performance will give them plenty to work on over the next two weeks before their Big East opener against Cincinnati on New Year's Day.
"We are very excited about where we're going in the future," Dixon said. "We're 10-1 and looking forward to the next challenge."