PITTSBURGH — In the second half of Pitt’s game at NC State on Saturday, the Panthers held a five-point lead, but were never able to extend it. The Wolfpack went on a 3-point shooting spree down the stretch, and Pitt absorbed a tough loss in their first ACC road game of the season.
At home against No. 11 Florida State on Monday night, the Panthers seemed to develop more of a killer instinct. They were able to make some contested shots down the stretch, get to the free-throw line when they couldn’t get an open look, and more importantly, played stellar defense in order to extend the lead to 13 points for a dominant victory over a ranked opponent.
“The difference was that we continued to get stops that kept us ahead,” head coach Jeff Capel said. “Then Xavier [Johnson] hit a big shot that extended it and that kind of opened it up for us. I thought we had a little bit more poise in that situation. I thought the energy from the crowd helped us, and we were able to make a couple of plays.”
As a young team, the Panthers will have to continue to develop that killer instinct to put a team away. Here are some of the factors that helped them in that regard on Monday and could be important areas for growth down the stretch.
BIG PLAY TREY
For the first 100-plus seasons of Pitt basketball, no freshman had ever scored 30 points in any game, let alone a conference game. That changed Wednesday, when Trey McGowens scored 33 to set Pitt’s rookie scoring record.
Monday, he turned in another 30-point performance, his second in six days.
If McGowens can become a regular contributor at that level, Pitt’s offense will be much better positioned to pull away late and make in-game adjustments if teams are keying in on Johnson at the point.
“[McGowens] has just gotten better,” Capel said. “He has continued to work, continued to learn, continued to adapt to college basketball and to figure some things out. We feel like he has speed where he can get by people, and then he has athleticism and then he has a fearlessness where he is not afraid to throw his body around. He took a very hard fall in the first half but still continued to throw his body around like that. He is a guy, where if you really look, during the season he has gotten to the free-throw line, and he did a heck of job of it [Monday].”
McGowens spent most of the game driving against a 7-foot-4 defender in FSU’s Christ Koumadje, and he had a few shots blocked, but he never stopped driving into the heart of the Seminoles defense.
“I’m fearless, I guess,” McGowens said. “No matter how big, I’m just going to compete and we’re just going to have to make a great play. That’s what coach says: ‘make them make a better play.’ That’s really what we’ve tried to do.”
The rest of Pitt’s team has just as much confidence in McGowens.
“You can’t tell what he’s gonna do, but I just know it’s going to be the right play,” wing Au’Diese Toney said. “You never know what he’s gonna do.”
TO THE LINE
The other thing Pitt does is get to the free-throw line. They made 46 trips to the charity stripe against the Seminoles, but Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton wasn’t complaining about the officiating after the game. He was crediting Pitt.
“I thought that our guys did a poor job at containing the dribble and they got to the foul line,” Hamilton said. “They did a really outstanding job of utilizing their talents and attacking us off the dribble and getting to the foul line.”
That’s a Florida State team that is still 31st in the country in percentage of points allowed at the free throw line. Their size means they don’t typically have to foul, but Pitt’s athleticism was too much.
“It was a big adjustment,” McGowens said. “We had to work a lot to get in the lane. We really just had to bring him away from the basket. … We feel like we can get to the free-throw line against anybody.”
Every team has a tough night shooting every now and then, but the ability to get to the free-throw line with consistency is a weapon, whether a team is hot or cold.
THE SWAGGER IS BACK
The confidence and fearlessness that Pitt’s freshmen showed against Florida State is nothing new. They did the same in a losing effort at West Virginia, where they drove at forward Sagaba Konate over and over again, despite his blocks. It’s something that Capel saw in them before they even got to Pitt.
“That is who they are—all three of them,” he said. “One of the things I loved about them as we got to know them during the recruiting process, and I have said this from the beginning, is that all three of them are competitive. You don’t find that a lot. They are very, very competitive, which means that they have a toughness about them. And they aren’t afraid. Not one time this year have they been afraid and I don’t think my team has been afraid. We are trying to develop that. We’re trying to make that the culture of this program—toughness, togetherness and fighting every second you’re out there. Today was a big step, to beat a team that already has an established culture like [Florida State].”
It’s not just Pitt’s freshmen that have bought into that message. Even the returning players seem more confident, more poised and more able to perform the job required to get wins in the ACC.
“It’s 0-0 to start the game—just because they’re ranked doesn’t mean that they’re a better team,” sophomore center Terrell Brown said. “They still have to show up like we do. That’s the way we look at it.”
That culture and mindset was evident from the other side on Monday night.
“With as many young freshmen that they have on their team, for them to be as focused as they are says a lot about the coaching staff and how hard they’re working with them to give them a level of confidence that it takes to go out and compete the way they did,” Hamilton said. “I think the people in Pittsburgh should be very happy that they have a guy who’s come in and kind of brought that swagger back that Pitt’s been accustomed to for over a number of years. We all know that The Zoo has always been a difficult place for people to come in and play against, and tonight we just got a little taste of that.”
A NEW ZOO ERA
When asked directly what the difference was between Saturday’s loss to NC State and Monday’s win over FSU, Brown gave a direct answer.
“The energy,” he said. “The Zoo was alive.”
For the better part of a decade, the Pete was one of the toughest places to play in the country. Yes, the teams Pitt and head coaches Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon put on the floor had a part in that. But a big part of it was the raucous, rowdy student section that rings three sides of the floor.
“Our crowd was incredible,” Capel said. “The energy they gave us and how they cheered. They helped us. They are a big part of our team. I have said this from the beginning. I love the connection that we are starting to develop together. Our team. The crowd is a big part of that.”
Toward the end of the game, the Zoo mocked Florida State’s Seminole War Chant and then chanted “We want Duke.”
Duke. As in, the No. 1 team in the country?
“I loved that,” Brown said. “We want every team. They all doubted us. Nobody thought we were going to get a win and we have two now. We have more to get.”