CINCINNATI -- Pittsburgh (No. 23 AP) has all of its moving parts back in the right places.
Gilbert Brown scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half Monday night, showing the Panthers what they've been missing for most of the season, and Ashton Gibbs made three free throws in the final 7.4 seconds to close out a 74-71 victory over Cincinnati.
The Panthers (13-2, 3-0 Big East) have won six straight and nine of their last 10 with a balanced offense and gritty defense. Both came into play in a tight game -- neither team led by more than seven points.
Pitt made 8 of 11 free throws over the final 62 seconds to protect its lead and show that it's a very poised and dangerous team now that it's back to full strength.
"They're not a very easy team to defend," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "Brown had five second-half baskets that I thought really broke our back. You can't really judge Pitt [except] since they have their full team back."
Pitt is 4-0 since Brown returned from an academic suspension and Jermaine Dixon returned from a broken right foot. Dixon had a career-high 21 points in an 82-72 victory at No. 7 Syracuse on Saturday. The Panthers didn't return home after the breakthrough win, flying to Cincinnati to play one of the Big East's early surprises on its home court.
The Bearcats (10-4, 2-1) already had beaten three ranked teams this season, including Connecticut in their last home game. With Gibbs scoring 14 points in the first half and Brown getting the biggest baskets in the second half, the Panthers were too much.
"It was big for me to just come back and jell with the team," said Brown, who was 5 of 8 from the field in the second half. "Sometimes it's hard for a player to come back, just to be cohesive and go with each other on offense and defense. I still feel we have a lot to do."
"It's just getting better," coach Jamie Dixon said. "I think they're improving. I think there's a real understanding that we're not going to be the same team in January that we were in November."
Cincinnati set the tone early by going right at Pitt's front line. Gates scored over Gary McGhee for Cincinnati's first basket. Two minutes later, the 6-foot-10 McGhee went to the bench with blood dripping from his nose after contact under the basket. He returned with his nostrils packed, a painful picture of how it this one would play out.
Gates, a 6-9 forward, had come off the bench in the last four games, a sign of Cronin's displeasure with his effort. He was back in the starting lineup on Monday and had 12 points and nine rebounds in the first half.
"In our pregame [meeting], we went over the situations and Coach knew how evenly our guards would play tonight," Gates said. "He said the difference could come down to how our big guys play. That was motivation to come out and play hard."
Cincinnati opened with an 11-4 run by going inside, but Gibbs had two free throws and a basket during an 11-2 run that helped Pitt take the lead. McGhee's emphatic dunk with 6 seconds left gave the Panthers a 38-32 halftime lead.
"We've been doubted this whole season, from the start," Gibbs said. "We knew in that locker room what everybody could do. Everybody has confidence in each other and I think it's really showing now."
Cincinnati couldn't stop Gibbs, who made every shot he attempted -- four from the field, five from the free-throw line -- for 14 points in the half. He missed his first shot in the second half, a jumper in traffic, and Cincinnati went inside again to tie it at 40.
Brown kept Pitt's offense rolling, hitting open shots over a defense geared to stop Gibbs. His wide-open jumper with 3:38 left put the Panthers ahead 66-62, and they sealed it from the free-throw line. Gibbs made both of his chances with 7.4 seconds left for a 73-69 lead.
Deonta Vaughn drove for a layup with 2.9 seconds left, then fouled Gibbs on the inbound play. He missed the first free throw, ending his streak at 46 in a row, but made the second to put the Panthers in line for another win.