KNOXVILLE, Tenn. —
Ashton Gibbs' confident play may finally be catching on with the younger Pittsburgh Panthers.
It at least paid off with a clutch three-point play by freshman John Johnson with 2 seconds left that helped seal No. 17 Pittsburgh's 61-56 win over Tennessee on Saturday in the Big East/SEC Challenge.
"We've got who knows how many freshmen out there, and I think (Gibbs') confidence kind of spread to the team as the game went on, and those young guys made some good plays," Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said.
The Volunteers (3-4) had whittled an eight-point Pittsburgh lead down to just two with 11 seconds remaining. Tennessee's Jeronne Maymon intentionally fouled Dante Taylor, who missed the front end of a 1-and-1 free-throw opportunity.
Maymon pulled in the rebound and passed to Trae Golden, who charged down the floor only to encounter Gibbs, who smothered the ball in his hands until the referee called a jump ball, with the possession arrow favoring the Panthers (7-1).
Johnson, a freshman playing in place of injured Travon Woodall, took the ball after a timeout, hit a layup on the break as he was fouled by Skylar McBee and sank the free throw.
"We found a way. We grinded it out," Dixon said. "We had to get stops down the stretch and that's what we did. We had everything that could go wrong, go wrong at the end with an eight point lead and the ball.
With 54 seconds left and the eight-point lead, Gibbs was called for a flagrant foul after elbowing Golden, who was trying to foul him. Golden sank one of two foul shots.
Tennessee retained possession, and Cameron Tatum hit a layup to cut the Panthers' lead to five.
Lamar Patterson and Dante Taylor both missed free throws for Pittsburgh, and Golden sank a 3 with 11 seconds left to cut the margin to 58-56. Taylor then missed his second foul shot, which set up Gibbs' clutch defensive stop.
"Coach (Cuonzo) Martin told us not to give up," Golden said. "That's one thing he stressed to us. We kept fighting. Bad luck of the draw with the tie up. I think we felt confident once Dante Taylor missed that. I came down, and we were down by two. It was a tough draw."
Nasir Robinson had 16 points and 12 rebounds, and Gibbs added another 16 points for the Panthers, who have won five straight since losing to Long Beach State on Nov. 16.
Tatum had 13 points and 10 rebounds for Tennessee, which has dropped four of its last five. Golden and Maymon each had 12 points.
The game was a rematch of last year's Big East/SEC Invitational game at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center. The then-11th-ranked Vols won that one 83-76, handing the third-ranked Panthers their first non-conference loss in their home city in nearly six years.
This installment featured far different lineups but was possibly more physical and definitely more competitive.
The teams traded the lead eight times in the first half alone with two ties.
Despite tough defense on both sides, both teams muscled their way inside for most of their baskets. The Vols got 18 of their first-half points in the paint, while the Panthers scored 12.
The first few minutes of the second half was more of the same until Tennessee's defense began to break down.
That allowed Pittsburgh to get three easy shots close to the basket in a 2-minute stretch. From there, the Panthers took control of the offensive boards and turned a 17-7 offensive rebounding advantage into 18 total second-chance points.
"I think the key to the game in a nutshell was offensive rebounding," Martin said. "Pitt did a good job of attacking the glass. We've got to do a better job there."
Gibbs, who struggled against the Vols last season, warmed up as well, hitting two jumpers and a 3-point shot in a short stretch. Gibbs followed that up with a long field goal with 5:01 left that gave Pittsburgh a 53-45 lead.
"My teammates did a good job of screening for me, and I just made a play," Gibbs said. 'We finished plays, we played defense, we rebounded the ball well. That's how you get a win on the road."