PITTSBURGH -- Struggling mightily on offense against what should have been an overmatched opponent, No. 23 Pittsburgh was finally turned loose.
For the first time in years, players said, coach Jamie Dixon allowed them to "freelance."
The result was a big second half and a 20-point win.
Tray Woodall scored 14 points and Pitt beat South Florida 64-44 on Wednesday night to hand the struggling Bulls their 10th consecutive loss.
"Coach started giving us free range to go out and just play," Woodall said, complimenting Dixon's adjustment after Pitt shot 26.9 percent in the first half. "He wasn't calling out any plays -- it was, 'Just go out and play basketball.' Some guys have never probably heard that from him this year. Go out and play, not call any sets."
Pitt has won nine of 12, remaining in the middle of the race for a double-bye in next month's conference tournament.
J.J. Moore added nine points, and 10 players scored in all for the balanced Panthers.
Victor Rudd had 16 points to lead the Bulls, who have lost 14 of 15.
The Big East's leader in scoring defense, Pitt held South Florida (10-17, 1-14) to 31.9 percent shooting. The conference's worst scoring offense was held to 50 points or fewer for the eighth time in 15 Big East games. The Panthers have allowed 50 or fewer 10 times this season.
"Our team got off to a good start, but we just couldn't sustain it," Bulls coach Stan Heath said. "We got it for about 28 minutes, close to 30 minutes -- and then it seemed like we had a hard time finishing plays and we just couldn't get anything going offensively."
The teams combined to shoot 32.6 percent (14 for 43) in the first half but went divergent directions in the second half. South Florida missed 10 of its first 11 shots after halftime; Pitt made seven of its first 10.
"I thought we had a great performance from 10 guys," Dixon said. "It wasn't our best game, but South Florida's patience hindered us in the first half. I thought we responded well in the second half."
After Patterson finished a fast break for the first points of the second half to give Pitt a 28-25 lead, South Florida went on a 5-0 run to take its final lead. The Panthers responded by scoring the next 16 points -- the first five field goals coming from five different players.
"It was just, `Play basketball," Dixon said. "They were sets, but it was more of a freelance-type thing, getting the ball moved from one side to another. That was the emphasis. I just wanted them to play basketball.
"I don't know they felt confident in that initially, but they did see the results and then I think they felt better about it."
Pitt coasted the rest of the way to pull within 1 1/2 games of second-place Marquette in the Big East. The top four seeds earn the right to rest until the quarterfinals of the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. It will be the ACC-bound Panthers' final Big East tournament.
Despite its usual bottom-feeder Big East status, South Florida had won five of its 10 prior conference games against Pitt -- including a season sweep last year.
The Bulls took a 14-6 lead 7 1/2 minutes in on a reverse alley-oop by Jawanza Poland, silencing a Petersen Events Center crowd that had watched the Panthers lose three of seven previous Big East homes games this season.
Pitt missed eight of its first 10 shots before Moore's 3-pointer cut Bulls' lead in half at 14-11 a minute after Poland's dunk. Steven Adams' layup tied it 2 1/2 minutes later. It wasn't until the second half, though, that Pitt took control.
"We just got into a rhythm," freshman guard James Robinson said. "We just were out there playing, having fun."
Pitt will close out its Big East tenure having won at least 10 conference games in 11 of its final 12 seasons in the league.
The Panthers held a 42-25 edge in rebounds. Adams, a 7-foot freshman, had a career-high five of their six blocks.
In six of its past seven games, Pitt has held the opponents' field goal percentage to less than 40 percent.
South Florida has shot better than 43 percent just once since upsetting now-No. 7 Georgetown on Jan. 19.
"I thought we had good momentum to start the game, but we haven't been able to sustain it for 40 minutes," Heath said, before quickly adding: "Except when we play the first-place team in the league."
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