PITTSBURGH — Ryan Luther is one of just two holdovers from a Pittsburgh team that endured a rare loss to rival Duquesne in the City Game last December, one of the low points in a season full of them.
While another potentially long winter awaits for the rebuilding Panthers, Luther wasn’t about to be part of a team that dropped consecutive games to the Dukes for the first time in 37 years. The senior forward scored 16 points, grabbed nine rebounds and provided his 11 new teammates with an emotional lift as Pitt pulled away for a 76-64 victory on Friday night.
“Being a senior, I’m trying to give energy to the young guys, play with a little bit more talk, little bit more emotion,” Luther said.
It showed. Luther slapped his hip after drilling a first-half 3-pointer and after the Dukes had trimmed a 12-point deficit to a single bucket in the second half, his steadying presence helped calm the Panthers down. A pair of lay-ups during a game-deciding 14-4 surge pushed Pitt (4-4) to its third straight victory.
“We needed to just sit down and play defense,” Luther said. “We know whenever our defense is set and everyone is talking … our offense comes after that, that’s what we were telling ourselves.”
Parker Stewart added a career-high 14 points for the Panthers. Marcus Carr had 15 points and five assists for Pitt and Shamiel Stevenson chipped in 13 points as Pitt improved to 54-32 in a series that dates back to 1932.
“I didn’t want to come in and be the stooge that lost the first two (to Duquesne), golly,” said Pitt second-year coach Kevin Stallings.
Mike Lewis II led the Dukes (2-3) with 20 points and Eric Williams Jr. finished with 18 points and eight rebounds but Duquesne wore down late. The Dukes shot 39 percent (14 of 36) in the second half and made only five baskets over the final 10 minutes.
“My feeling is we’re in disarray,” said first-year Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot. “When I’ve had my really good teams, they know what to do when. Our team right now has no consistency. I’m asking them to do some things they’ve never had to do before.”
The 86th annual meeting of the two schools separated by 2.4 miles had a significantly different vibe than the 85 that came before. Both programs are in the midst of what figures to be a bumpy transition. Dambrot is working with a shorthanded roster that features just six healthy scholarship players while Stallings is trying to get a feel for what combinations work.
While Dambrot wanted to beat the Panthers, he said before the game he had “bigger fish to fry” as he tries to resuscitate his father Sid’s alma mater. It’s much the same for Stallings, who went 16-17 last winter and then oversaw a massive player overhaul.
Luther is one of the few constants, and Pitt will need his leadership if it wants to navigate a brutal Atlantic Coast Conference schedule. That challenge is still a month off. For now, the Panthers are simply trying to get a little better each time out. After a 1-4 start, it appears to be happening.
“We kind of figured some other stuff out that suits us and I think they like it,” Stallings said. “If they like it and it works for us, that’s a good thing.”
Pitt: The Panthers are starting to get a grasp on Stallings’ offense. Pitt was 30 of 56 (53 percent) from the field and has shot better than 50 percent in each of its last four games.
Duquesne: The depth and size are going to be an issue all season for the Dukes with five players sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules. The ones healthy and eligible will compete for Dambrot but some difficult nights lie ahead in the Atlantic 10.
“We’re going to have a good program here, I’m sure of it,” Dambrot said. “I’m just not sure it’s going to be this year.”
Pitt: Welcomes Mount St. Mary’s on Tuesday.
Duquesne: Hosts Maryland-Eastern Shore on Monday.