CLEMSON, S.C. — Jeff Capel did not mince words late Tuesday night inside Littlejohn Coliseum.
His Pitt Panthers had just lost their fourth straight game, falling 82-69 to the Clemson Tigers. And typically, one of the positives Capel has been able to take away from defeats this season is how the Panthers played on defense. He’ll say that the Panthers fought hard, that a loss wasn’t due to a lack of effort, that their ability to defend was a bright spot.
That was not the case following Pitt’s embarrassing defensive performance against Clemson, where the Panthers allowed the Tigers to shoot 55.3 percent from the floor and 51.9 percent from behind the 3-point arc. Both of those marks are season highs for Pitt, in terms of the shooting success they’ve given to opponents.
“We’ve been good defensively all year. We were not [Tuesday night], especially in the first half,” Capel said. “There was no resistance and it was almost like those guys were in a shootaround.”
The Tigers started the game off by connecting on eight of their first 10 field goal attempts. Four of the shots were from 3-point land, and eight minutes into the game Clemson had a sizable lead, ahead 22-5. Pitt never led in the game, while Clemson grew its advantage to 29 points during one stretch.
“They kicked our butt,” Capel said. “We had no intensity, no energy, no desire. We had none of it early and that’s unacceptable.”
For some, the loss was reminiscent of a past Pitt era. When the Panthers last traveled to Clemson, on Feb. 18, 2018, Kevin Stallings’ team fell 72-48. In that game, the Tigers shot 45.8 percent from the floor and 44.4 percent from three-point range. There aren’t many holdovers from the Stallings’ era, but Jared Wilson-Frame is one of them. He was emotional in the locker room at halftime, according to teammate Xavier Johnson.
“Jared came in the locker room and he was actually tearing up,” Johnson said. “Honestly, we don’t want to send Jared and (grad transfer Sidy N’Dir) out being the same team as last year.”
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Johnson expected Capel to be emotional at halftime too, but he wasn’t.
“Coach came in at halftime, and I thought he was going to be yelling and screaming and throwing chairs and stuff, but he didn’t do all that,” Johnson said. “He told us that he was going to play the guys that want to fight, and he put those guys in and those guys fought.”
Pitt outscored Clemson 46-31 in the second half and whittled the deficit down to 13 points. But the first half hole Pitt put itself in proved to be too large.
Capel gave chances to bench players, like Sidy N’Dir, Khameron Davis, Kene Chukwuka and Samson George. N’Dir, Davis and George combined for 16 points, eight rebounds, a block and three steals.
Johnson continued his stellar play in the second half too. He ended the contest with a career-high scoring total of 30 points, which led all scorers in the contest. It was a good bounce-back game for him after he had poor shooting performances against Duke (eight points on seven shots) and Louisville (nine points on 13 shots).
Defensively, Pitt held Clemson to 43.5 percent from the floor and 41.7 percent from three-point range in the second half.
“I thought in the second half, we (played well), but we did not have that in the first 20 minutes of the game,” Capel said. “And I have to do a better job of figuring out why and changing that, and we will.”
WOULD TONEY HAVE MADE A DIFFERENCE?
The digits on the scoreboard inside Littlejohn Coliseum might have been different if Pitt had been playing this game at full strength.
Freshman wing Au’Diese Toney, who had started each game before this one, missed the contest with a hand injury. The 6-foot-6 versatile defender from Huntsville, Alabama injured his right hand in practice on Sunday. He leads Pitt in rebounding and has sometimes been tasked with guarding the opposition’s top scorer.
Johnson thinks that Toney’s presence would have had an impact.
“Yes, (Toney) always makes a big difference for us,” Johnson said. “He rebounds for us — that’s the biggest thing.”
Capel conceded that Toney’s absence affected the Panthers, but also said the freshman’s injury was “no excuse” for the defeat.
Pitt was also without starter Terrell Brown for most of the game. He played just four minutes.
McGOWENS’ HOMECOMING SPOILED
In a perfect world, this game would have been a happy homecoming for Pitt freshman guard Trey McGowens, who grew up in Piedmont, South Carolina, about 30 minutes away from Clemson’s campus.
Instead, McGowens struggled. He tallied just five points on nine shots and turned the ball over three times. He also notched an assist, a steal and three rebounds in 29 minutes of play.
“I just think it was an off night for [McGowens],” Capel said. “He hasn’t played well the past few games, really since the Florida State game. I think my guards, my young guys, my team … I think we’re a little bit fatigued. It’s no excuse. We have to figure out a way to get past it. We have to be tougher and more resilient.”
In Pitt’s upset of then-No. 11 Florida State, McGowens poured in 30 points on 12 shots. Since then, he’s scored in double digits just once. Over his last four games, all losses for Pitt, McGowens is 14-of-44 from the floor, a shooting percentage of 31.8.
GRIND CONTINUES WITH SYRACUSE
“It’s tough, the losing streak,” Capel said. “This league is tough. It’s a grind. The teams that are resilient are the teams that figure out a way. We’re still learning a lot. We’ve done some good things early, but that’s not good enough now. No one cares about that.”
Pitt is now 2-6 in ACC play and a long way from where they want to be.
In performances against Saint Louis, Louisville, Florida State and even their loss to N.C. State, the Panthers have shown how good they can be. But in defeats against Clemson and Niagara, they’ve shown how capable they are of letting mistakes pile up quickly.
Capel’s side has the chance to get back on track Saturday. Syracuse comes to town, which is the second crack the Panthers are getting at the Orange this season.
Pitt lost by 11 points in their first meeting with Jim Boeheim’s team this season. They shot just 33.8 percent from the floor and turned the ball over 17 times as Syracuse’s vaunted zone defense had its way.
The Panthers will have to learn from their previous shortcomings to back on track in one of the toughest leagues in college basketball.
“The zone. We obviously have to prepare for the zone better,” Johnson said. “Last time we got too stagnant with the ball, this time we’ll be better prepared for them.
“[Capel is] not a loser. I’m not a loser either. He didn’t bring us in to lose. So, we just have to start winning. That’s our plan.”