Take the 3-pointer or drive to the basket?
Mills saw Pitt point guard Travon Woodall in the way and opted to head to the hoop.
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Woodall stretched out every last inch of his 5-foot-11 frame to block Mills' late layup attempt, helping the Panthers escape with a 73-69 victory.
"Normally I would just go up and contest the shot to make it difficult for him," Woodall said. "At that point in time we needed a stop and I just went after it."
Dante Taylor grabbed the loose ball and was fouled, then made a free throw to provide the final margin as the Panthers narrowly avoided their first November losing streak at the Petersen Events Center.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon praised Woodall's hustle but lamented his team was in that kind of precarious position in the first place.
The Panthers won despite turning it over 21 times, including a flurry of miscues in the final minutes as the normally sure-handed Woodall and backcourt mate Ashton Gibbs were rattled by La Salle's full-court press.
"Those types of things just can't happen," Dixon said.
Woodall made up for it, capping his 12-point, 10-assist night with his career-high third block. The Panthers needed every last one of them, though La Salle coach John Giannini took the blame for Mills' decision to attack the rim.
"I would have liked to see a 3-pointer in that situation," Giannini said. "But it's early in the year and we haven't worked on late-game situations a lot."
The Explorers (2-2) should probably get cracking. They let a near upset of crosstown Philadelphia rival Villanova get away in the final minute of regulation a week ago, collapsing in overtime.
It didn't get that far against the Panthers -- La Salle only led once -- yet Giannini is running out of patience with moral victories.
"We just were up by five with a minute and a half against Villanova, we don't want to have this become a broken record," Giannini said. "Obviously we're going to get better. You just hate to blow special opportunities."
Nasir Robinson led Pitt (3-1) with 17 points and Ashton Gibbs overcame a slow start to finish with 14, but the Panthers and their roster filled with 10 underclassmen had trouble putting away the Explorers.
Earl Pettis scored 22 for La Salle and the Explorers hung around despite shoot just four of 16 on 3-pointers and being dominated on the glass, getting outrebounded 42-24.
Highly touted Pitt freshman forward Khem Birch played a season-high 13 minutes, finishing with four points, six rebounds and three blocks, giving his team's frontcourt a much-needed boost while making a cameo at center.
"He was more effective there," Dixon said. "He was playing both [forward and center] and we've got to get him more comfortable playing there."
Birch's athleticism helped give Pitt's defense some bite, a trait curiously lacking through the season's first two weeks.
Rider put up 45 points in the first half before fading late in an 86-78 Pitt victory on Nov. 13. Long Beach State matched that total last Wednesday and kept right on going in an 86-76 upset, snapping Pitt's 58-game nonconference home winning streak.
Dixon promised to shore things up during the layoff, and while the Panthers were back to their usual selves, the Explorers were hardly pushovers.
Pitt led by 10 points early but couldn't shake free as LaSalle clamped down on Gibbs, who missed his first five shots from the floor.
Devon White raced the length of the floor for a layup just before the halftime buzzer to trim Pitt's advantage to 28-26 at the break and give the Explorers a confidence boost.
Every time Pitt appeared ready to take control, La Salle would bounce back. A 9-0 burst by the Panthers gave them a 61-53 lead with 4:21 to go, but La Salle -- which lost in overtime to Villanova a week ago -- kept on coming behind Pettis and some sloppy Pitt ballhandling.
Pettis hit a layup with 1:25 to play to get the Explorers back within 68-66. Gibbs hit two free throws and Woodall drew a charge -- the second crucial offensive foul he drew in the second half -- and Pitt appeared to be safe.
Yet as Dixon and his inexperienced roster are learning, no lead is secure.
Pettis drilled a 3-pointer to cut Pitt's lead to 72-69 with 45 seconds left. Rather than foul, the Explorers played defense and it paid off when the Panthers bobbled the ball into the hands of Mills, who eschewed the 3-pointer and went to the rim.
Woodall extended every last inch of his frame to get the block, and Taylor snagged the rebound and drew the foul as Pitt escaped.
"It's a game we really wanted badly," Giannini said. "We were in position to have a chance, we just didn't do certain things."
|Pittsburgh's Travon Woodall scores 12 points in the Panthers' victory over the La Salle Explorers. (US Presswire)|
|La Salle (2-2)||26||43||69|
|Pittsburgh #17 (3-1) «||28||45||73|
|LSLE:E. Pettis 22 Pts
LSLE:J. Wright 6 Reb
LSLE:T. Duren 5 Ast
|PITT:N. Robinson 17 Pts
PITT:N. Robinson 6 Reb
PITT:T. Woodall 10 Ast
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|PLAYERS OF THE GAME|
|La Salle Explorers|
|S. Mills, G||40||5-14||0-0||2||2||4||12|
|T. Duren, G||38||3-7||3-3||1||5||3||9|
|E. Pettis, G||36||8-16||4-4||4||2||1||22|
|D. White, F-C||27||5-9||2-3||3||0||5||12|
|J. Wright, F||22||3-7||2-4||6||1||4||8|
|D. Peterson, G||16||2-5||1-1||2||2||1||5|
|S. Zack, C||10||0-1||1-2||3||0||2||1|
|M. Lopez, C||6||0-0||0-0||0||0||1||0|
|T. Dunn, G||5||0-1||0-0||0||0||0||0|
|R. Galloway, G||Did Not Play|
|M. Sheehan, F||Did Not Play|
|R. Brown, G-F||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|
|T. Woodall, G||36||5-8||0-0||3||10||4||12|
|A. Gibbs, G||34||3-15||7-8||5||3||0||14|
|N. Robinson, F||30||8-10||1-2||6||0||2||17|
|D. Taylor, F||22||4-5||3-4||6||0||2||11|
|L. Patterson, G-F||21||1-5||1-2||4||4||3||4|
|J. Moore, F||19||3-5||0-0||6||1||0||9|
|T. Zanna, F||16||0-1||2-4||3||1||1||2|
|K. Birch, F||13||2-4||0-0||6||0||3||4|
|J. Johnson, G||8||0-0||0-0||0||1||2||0|
|C. Wright, G||1||0-0||0-0||0||0||0||0|
|N. Rivers, G||Did Not Play|
|I. Epps, G||Did Not Play|
|A. Nwankwo, F||Did Not Play|
|M. Gilbert, C||Did Not Play|
|D. Johnson, G-F||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|