Unsung heroes shine in Pitt’s win over Maryland

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NEW YORK – How many people knew the name Talib Zanna heading into tonight’s Coaches vs. Cancer opening round?

Pittsburgh fans certainly did. He’s been starting for the Panthers since the season began. Maryland probably did as well. You have to go over your opponent’s leading rebounder when you scout a team. I’m pretty sure that’s on page one of the coaching hand book.

But on a national scale, how many people would you actually expect to know who a redshirt freshman is that was supposed to come off the bench this season? I’d be willing to wager a fair amount of money that, when asked who Talib Zanna is, more people would answer “Did Talib Kweli change his name?” than “the most productive post presence on the No. 4 team in the country.”

And I’d be pretty confident that I would be leaving with more money than I came with.

“We’ve known about [Zanna] since last year,” Panther senior Brad Wanamaker said after the game. “If he had known the plays last year, he probably would have played. But him playing college basketball was a little adjustment for him. He came out tonight, had a double-double. He’s going to have a great season for us.”

Zanna is one of the more pleasant surprises of this young season. Coming into tonight’s tilt with Maryland, he was averaging 8.0 ppg and 8.3 ppg in three starts against subpar competition. Tonight, however, he made a name for himself. The Nigerian native led Pitt with 14 points and 12 boards going up against one of the best big men in the country in Jordan Williams.

One of those rebounds and two of those points came on a tip in with 59 seconds left in the game that gave Pitt a 72-66 lead and all but Maryland’s fate.

“Coach just tells me to go after the ball everytime,” Zanna said after the game. “Ashton took the shot, and I was ready to go. I was just ready to get the offensive rebound and put it back in.”

That stat was correct, by the way. The redshirt freshman that is only starting because Nasir Robinson is working his way back from knee surgery went into Madison Square Garden in a game televised on ESPN and led the Panthers, who won tonight 79-70, in both scoring and rebounding.

Its precisely that kind of depth that makes Pitt such a dangerous team this season.

Coming into the game, all the talk was about Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker. Gibbs is the star, the preseason all-Big East member, while Wanamaker is the guy that everyone has pegged as one of this year’s breakout performers. Both were averaging 19.3 ppg in Pitt’s first three.

Neither played particularly well tonight.

And the Panthers were still victorious over a good Maryland squad that should be dancing come March.

Not many teams can boast that kind of balance.

While Wanamaker battled foul trouble all game, Gilbert Brown and Lamar Patterson got a number of crucial buckets and made the kind of hustle plays Wanamaker is known for. With Gibbs fumbling his way to six turnovers, Travon Woodall provided a spark off the bench. He finished with 11 points and five assists, the majority of which came in a transition game you don’t normally expect to see out of Jamie Dixon’s team. And Robinson, the guy that was expected to miss as many as ten games to start the year, gutted out seven minutes and scored arguably the most important points of the game. Pitt had built a 13 point lead early in the second half, and after Maryland went on a 17-4 run to tie the game at 46, Robinson answered with a tough, and-one bucket to spark a 7-0 counter punch that Maryland was never able to recover from.

“I thought we had a number of guys step up, I don’t really know who to point out,” Dixon said after the game.

“I think we have pretty good balance.”

Balance is right.

Five Panthers scored in double figures tonight. Seven scored between seven and 14 points. JJ Moore, a freshman that was the team’s third leading scorer coming into the guy, only played three minutes. That’s why this team is one of the few teams in the country that can lose a starter to injury and not miss a beat.

“It shows that guys are improving every day in practice,” Wanamaker said. “We got a lot of guys that show up and show that they want to work hard to get Coach Dixon’s confidence that if he puts them on the floor, they can show what they can do.”

This is nothing new for a Jamie Dixon-coached squad. Balanced teams and unsung heroes are his bread and butter. Its the reason he’s been the fifth winningest coach in the country since 2003, when he took over for UCLA-bound Ben Howland, without the benefit of a single first round draft pick.

And while Pitt’s balance is what will make them dangerous over the course of the season, tonight was Talib Zanna’s night to shine.

Will it affect his attitude if people start talking about him?

“I don’t really pay attention to that,” Zanna said.

“I just want to play my game and try to do what Coach Dixon tells me.”

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.