PITTSBURGH — Lamar Patterson tied a career high with 16 points and No. 15 Pittsburgh pulled away in the second half for a 69-55 victory over South Carolina State on Saturday.
Ashton Gibbs added 14 points and a team-high six assists for the Panthers (10-1), who have won eight straight.
Brandon Riley led the Bulldogs (4-7) with 21 points and Khalif Toombs added 16 while making all four of his 3-point attempts, but South Carolina State wore down in the second half.
Riley hit a jumper to pull South Carolina State within one before Pitt responded with a 13-3 run fueled by Patterson.
The sophomore converted a putback, then rolled in an acrobatic layup 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 the sudden departure of promising center Khem Birch, who left the team on Friday for what coach Jamie Dixon called "personal reasons."
The highly touted freshman 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 6-foot-9 frame and exquisite timing made him an effective defensive presence.
Dixon wished Birch well, and it appears there's no going back. Considering the way sophomore forward Talib Zanna played, scoring 12 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, the Panthers may be just fine without Birch, though his absence forced Dixon to get creative late in the first half when Dante Taylor and Nasir Robinson each went to the bench with two fouls.
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.
Bradley kept South Carolina State close in the first half with 17 points, but was held to just four in the second half, though his 18-footer that trimmed Pitt's lead to 35-34 caused an uneasy murmur throughout the Petersen Events Center.
No biggie. The Panthers stopped giving the ball away, committing just four turnovers after the break, and their size advantage took its toll on South Carolina State.
Pitt outrebounded the Bulldogs 41-29, leading to a 36-18 scoring edge in the paint.
The game-deciding run was more of a slow jog, with John Johnson's two free throws getting Pitt started before Patterson went to work. Johnson later added a layup, JJ Moore hit a putback and Zanna tipped in a miss.
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.