RALEIGH, N.C. — According to Pitt head coach Jeff Capel, youth and inexperience are no longer crutches the Panthers can lean on.
That might have not been the case in November — when Pitt narrowly lost on the road to then-No. 14 Iowa — but now, with ACC play underway, the 43-year-old doesn’t want to hear it.
“That excuse is not for us right now. It’s the middle of January,” Capel said. “We’re in league play and we have 16 games under our belt and these guys have played heavy minutes. We have to get better… We allowed sometimes physicality to get to us. We didn’t have poise in that situation.”
In enemy territory at PNC Arena on Saturday, Pitt had a lead over the N.C. State Wolfpack with about six minutes left. An upset was not only possible at that point, but it began to seem likely.
Then it all slipped away.
In those final six minutes, Pitt missed five shots, committed five fouls and grabbed just one rebound. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack knocked down four three-pointers en route to scoring 26 points, paving the path to an 86-80 victory.
“I don’t think we got overwhelmed, (N.C. State) just made some shots and made plays. They’re ranked 15th in the country for a reason,” Capel said. “They’re good. They made a run, we couldn’t get stops in that moment and we missed some shots. Sometimes that happens, especially when you’re on the road. I don’t think we got overwhelmed though.”
Pitt’s youngsters played well, but not well enough. Freshmen Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney combined for 42 points. Sophomores Terrell Brown and Khameron Davis combined for 19 points and 12 boards.
What wound up being Pitt’s undoing in this game was that the Panthers didn’t value the basketball. They coughed up possession 17 times, lost the rebounding battle by 10 and displayed poor shot selection in several instances. Pitt came up with just nine offensive rebounds and allowed N.C. State to grab 21, which led to the Wolfpack scoring 24 points off second chances.
When you add in that N.C. State played the majority of this game without two starters — one was ejected and another left injured — it seems that this was a missed opportunity; an upset that Pitt should have pulled off.
“We do feel like this was a game that we could’ve easily had, even if their regular starters were in,” Johnson said. “The last few plays down, they came back and they were shooting the ball, making shots on our 2-3 zone. We just have to execute.”
Johnson scores big, but Capel wants improvement
With 25 points on eight-of-12 shooting, Johnson led all scorers in this game. The freshman also added two assists and a rebound.
And he did all of that in just 24 minutes, because Capel sat him down for a pair of lengthy stretches in the first half due to turnovers and fouls.
“X has to stop committing fouls that are not smart and both of his fouls in the first half were plays that were not smart,” Capel said. “We talked about that from the Louisville game the other day. He committed three in the first half and (they were) not smart. He has to do a better job because we’re a different team (without him on the floor).”
Capel first benched Johnson at the 15:33 mark, after he missed a free throw, turned the ball over twice and fouled twice in the opening moments of the game. Johnson came back in at the 8:34 mark, but Capel yanked him again in less than three minutes, after a turnover.
Without Johnson on the floor, Capel moved Trey McGowens over to point guard. He led all players in assists with seven while also tallying seven points and five rebounds.
“(McGowens) had to be the guy to initiate the offense and that’s a position that he isn’t quite as comfortable with right now,” Capel said. So, our offense is not as good because we’re limited in some of the things that we can do. So, that did hurt us with (Johnson) being out in the first half.”
McGowen caught the foul flu in the second half, committing five.
Johnson didn’t tally a single foul in the second half and Pitt’s offense operated a bit more smoothly. After shooting 37 percent from the floor as a team in the first half, they shot 53.6 percent in the second half.
“I feel like I should know what to do. I have to take care of the ball better,” Johnson said. “I already had those games with turnovers and it shouldn’t be happening right now.”
Pitt sees real improvement in free throws
With Johnson sidelined for the majority of the first half, Pitt stayed in the game by finding success at the free throw line.
Entering this game, the Panthers had shot 70.3 percent as a team from the charity stripe this season. But in the first half, their success rate got a bump. Pitt went 18-of-21 from the foul line in the first half, good enough for 85.7 percent.
Jared Wilson-Frame had a poor shooting night from the floor, making just one-of-10 field goals, but he went a perfect nine-for-nine from the charity stripe. The Panthers trailed by just a point at halftime, and their free throws were a big reason why they were hanging around.
But in the second half, Pitt couldn’t get to the line as often. The Panthers went to the line seven times, connecting on six attempts.
“A lot of that was, mentally, we just stopped doing the things that we should’ve been doing, attacking them and getting to the line,” Au’Diese Toney said. “We kind of ran away from that the last couple of minutes.”
From Johnson’s perspective, Pitt played the same way in the first and second half, but they didn’t hear the whistle as often.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t say it was different. We attacked the rim the same way in the first half, we just didn’t get the same calls we desired,” Johnson said. “We’ll be at home next time.”
Davis finds a niche, Pitt has success from corners
One of the bright spots in this game for Pitt was the performance of Khameron Davis, who came off the bench to score nine points and grab four rebounds.
It was just the second time this season that Davis — a sophomore guard from Denver, Colorado — scored that many points. His previous best performance was an 11-point outing against VMI.
Against N.C. State, Davis found all of his points from the same spot on the floor, the left corner. After going three-of-three on attempts from there, N.C. State began guarding him more closely, which opened things up for his teammates.
“(Davis is) important to us. In practice and in a couple of games, he’s been giving us that energy. He’s an energy guy and that’s what we need,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the things the coaches want us to do, drive and kick. And if you’re open, shoot the ball.”
Pitt had success as a team shooting three-pointers from the corners Saturday, making five-of-six attempts from those areas. Elsewhere from behind the arc, Pitt shot one-of-seven.
We’re a streaky shooting team,” Capel said. “So, if we can have some guys make some from out there, that helps us a lot.”
— Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch) January 12, 2019
Pitt needs more from bench
While Pitt got a boost from Davis, it got nothing else in terms of scoring from the rest of its bench.
Other Panthers’ reserves played a combined 13 minutes, attempted three shots, grabbed three rebounds and had a steal.
On the other side, N.C. State got 54 points and 21 rebounds from its bench.
“There were a lot of fresh legs coming in (for N.C. State),” Toney said. “A lot of us have to play a lot of minutes because of the depth chart we have right now. They just had more guys to be able to help them on the glass and stuff like that.
“We’re going to figure it out.”
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for Pitt. On Monday, they’ll host No. 13 Florida State. Then the Panthers will travel to Syracuse, then host No. 1 Duke, then round out January with road games at Louisville at Clemson.
To stay competitive in the ACC, one of the youngest teams in college basketball is going to have to grow up fast.