Irish post third loss in four games

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) -- Chris Taft sparked Pittsburgh in the opening minutes with a rebound basket, a dunk and a pair of shots inside.

Taft finished with a career-high 26 points to lead the 24th-ranked Panthers, who had 56 points in the paint, to an 85-77 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday.

"I hit a couple of jump hooks in a row and just kept going to that," said Taft, who scored eight of his team's first 12 points. "I was yelling for the ball like crazy."

Chevon Troutman had 22 points and Carl Krauser added 15 for the Panthers (20-7, 10-6), who posted their fourth straight 20-win season and clinched both fifth place in the Big East and a first-round bye in the league tournament.

"They're a very good basketball team and frankly, they were a little tougher than us," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.

The Irish (17-9, 9-7), who lost for the third time in four games, fell to sixth place to miss out on the first-round bye and hurt their hopes for an NCAA Tournament berth. The Irish scored just 24 points in the paint.

"They just outplayed us," said Irish forward Torin Francis, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds. "We just weren't aggressive
enough. They were more physical than us and it turned into a loss."

The Panthers were too much for the Irish inside, shooting 57 percent for the game -- their second-best performance of the season.

"I think our big guys were really good at passing the ball between each other," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said.

Colin Falls, who scored a career-high 28 points with a school record-tying eight 3-pointers, gave Notre Dame a 43-42 lead five minutes into the second half on a pair of free throws. But the Panthers went on a 13-0 run, with Taft scoring seven points. Except for a free throw by Taft, all the points were scored on baskets inside.

Mark McCarroll capped the run with a rebound basket -- two of 13 second-chance points by the Panthers -- as Pitt opened a 58-43 lead.

The Irish cut the lead to 60-56 when Chris Thomas made a pair of free throws with 6:50 left. They had a chance to get closer, but Falls missed a 3-point attempt and Thomas missed a 15-foot jumper. Thomas missed his first 10 shots and finished 2-of-13 with 12 points.

Pitt, which outscored the Irish 12-0 on fast-break points, then scored five quick points. Antonio Graves, who had 11 points, scored on an acrobatic left-handed layup. Troutman added a basket and free throw.

After Thomas made his first shot, a 10-foot jumper from the baseline, the Panthers put the game away with a 7-0 run.

Taft added 11 rebounds and four blocks in his second straight strong game after playing poorly in Pitt's recent three-game losing streak.

"That was on my mind," Taft said. "Coming here from the airport I was telling myself, 'There's no way I'm playing like I did when we were at home.'"