AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Aaron Gray towered over Kent State like an unstoppable giant.
The 7-footer scored on lobs in the lane, snatched one rebound after another and seemed to swat shots with his elbows.
When his dominant day was done, Gray scored 17 points on perfect shooting, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked five shots to help the fifth-seeded Panthers beat Kent State 79-64 in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday.
“It’s sick,” Pittsburgh point guard Carl Krauser said. “It looks like he’s playing against kids.”
While Gray took care of things on the inside — making 6-of-6 shots and five free throws — shooting guard Ronald Ramon made all six of his attempts for 16 points and Krauser ran the show with 11 points and nine assists.
The Panthers scored so easily and often — shooting a season-high 67 percent — they frayed the net at one end of the court and just about wore out the twine at the other.
“For us to win, we needed Pitt to shoot poorly, and they shot extremely well,” Kent State coach Jim Christian said. “We just had too much of an uphill battle.”
The No. 12 seed Golden Flashes, whose tallest player was 6-9, unsuccessfully tried to surround their enormous foe looming near the basket.
“They were sending two or three guys at me, which was getting frustrating,” Gray said. “The few times I was open for a split second, my teammates did a great job of getting me the ball.”
The Panthers (25-7) will face Bradley in the second round of the Oakland Regional on Sunday.
Kent State (25-9) was unable to recreate to magic it had four years ago, when it knocked off Pittsburgh to advance to the regional finals. Reserve Kevin Warzynski scored 15 points to lead the Golden Flashes of the Mid-American Conference while Jay Youngblood and reserve Omni Smith scored 10 each.
“We had an unbelievable run in 2002, and that team will always be special in Kent State history,” Christian said. “But this team will be in the very next paragraph.”
With Pittsburgh’s scoring threats all over the court — including forward Levon Kendall, who added 10 against Kent State — and physical defense, the Panthers might have assembled the team they need to get past the round of 16.
The Panthers have won slightly more than 80 percent of their games the past five seasons, a winning percentage that trails Duke, Gonzaga and Illinois. The Big East power has reached the benchmark strong programs strive for — the round of 16 — in three of the past four years and are in the NCAAs for a school-record fifth straight year.
“This is a great sense of relief, but we still have a lot of games left in this tourney,” Krauser said.
Early in the second half, they made sure Kent State didn’t have comeback hopes. Pittsburgh scored the first nine points after halftime and didn’t allow a field goal for six-plus minutes, building a 56-31 lead.
The Golden Flashes were feisty enough to avoid an absolute rout, but they didn’t have enough to make Pittsburgh sweat as it made 66.7 percent of its shots after halftime.
“Carl (Krauser) really did a great job of moving the ball and making us hard to guard,” Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said. “The guys just made shots, and that was passing more than anything. We kept getting the shots we needed.”
The Panthers were without guard Keith Benjamin, who came down with an illness earlier this week. He watched part of the game from the bench before going to the locker room because of a headache.
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