CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As he backpedaled, watching his three-pointer sink softly through the nylon, Jared Wilson-Frame slapped the back of his right thigh three times.
The moment was part hype, part reaction, part a feeling of an accomplished mission. Typically, Wilson-Frame — Pitt’s top shooter from behind the arc — will tap his back leg as a signal to a ball handler to look for him as an option to shoot a trailing three-pointer. At that point in the game, with Pitt trailing Boston College by three points with about seven minutes to go in the first half, it was Sidy N’Dir who noticed Wilson-Frame’s subtle signal. N’Dir drove, dished and Wilson-Frame flushed the three-pointer, tying the game up for Pitt at 16-16.
“(The tapping) means I’m coming for a three. It was just a natural reaction after I hit it. I was getting kind of hype,” Wilson-Frame said. “We just tried to come out and fire on all cylinders. I just felt like everybody was all locked in.”
From there, Pitt embarked on an 18-3 run to help them take a sizable advantage into halftime. The Panthers didn’t let up in the second half, using a 21-9 run to take their biggest lead of the game, 27 points.
Jeff Capel’s Pitt Panthers played arguably their best basketball of the season on Tuesday in a win-or-go home game against Boston College. In a noisy Spectrum Center, the Panthers dominated in several facets of the game to a take an upset 80-70 victory in the first round of the ACC tournament.
The triumph marked the first time since December that Pitt had won back-to-back games. After beating Notre Dame and now Boston College, the Panthers feel like they have real momentum.
“It was a great feeling and it’s a feeling we haven’t really had in a while,” said Wilson-Frame, who scored 16 points. “I really felt it today on the court. I felt like we were all here today.”
The win seems like a giant accomplishment for Capel in his first year as Pitt’s head coach. The Panthers hadn’t won an ACC tournament game since 2017, and this squad experienced some real diversity from Jan. 19 to March 5, where they lost 13 games in a row.
But, like Wilson-Frame’s game-tying three-pointer, everything felt like it was going right for Pitt on Tuesday. It wasn’t luck, but the product of hard work and preparation.
Capel was pleased.
“A big time win for us. I’m really proud of our guys and for how hard we played, and I thought it was the most complete game that we’ve played as far as executing the game plan defensively, understanding personnel,” Capel said. “Everyone that played did a really, really good job, so I’m proud of my team.”
Indeed, the end result was the outcome that Pitt wanted, but this game did not begin so smoothly. Boston College jumped out to a 7-0 lead after Pitt missed its first two shots and turned the ball over four times in the first four minutes.
At the 17:08 mark, Capel had seen enough. He called a timeout and gathered the Panthers in for a quick message.
“I said, ‘Stop turning the ball over, let’s settle into the game, and we have to be strong. We have to be sharp, and we have to defend,’” Capel said. “That was really it, just settle into the game and let’s play.”
A minute later, Xavier Johnson scored his first bucket of the night by connecting on a lay-up in traffic. Johnson, a freshman who has scored in double figures in 28 games this season, finished with 23 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Playing in his first ACC tournament game, Johnson admitted there were some early jitters.
“I’m going to be honest,” Johnson said. “I was kind of nervous and I knew they were kind of nervous because our first time playing an ACC Tournament game. But I mean, that fell off after I guess the first four minutes.”
Pitt settled into its game plan after those first four minutes of stagnant play. While Wilson-Frame knocked down a trio of three-pointers, Pitt mostly succeeded inside.
The Panthers outscored the Eagles 42-18 in the paint, and also out-rebounded them 42-35.
“That’s our strategy every game, to try to attack,” Capel said. “We’ve been a very streaky shooting team, but when we’ve been at our best is when we’ve been able to get downhill and attack, when we’re able to defend well and defensive rebound and get out in transition.”
Pitt outscored Boston College 26-17 on fast break opportunities too. And the Panthers drew plenty of fouls, going to the charity stripe 32 times and knocking down 23 shots from there.
Terrell Brown helped Pitt have presence inside, tallying six points, three rebounds and a team-high three blocks.
“We try to make that a narrative every game. But this game, we were locked in, the whole team, from the coaching staff to the players to the managers. We knew what we had to do. Every time we had the ball, we were on the hunt. If you see your shot, take it. And the shots we got were in the paint, so we took them all.”
McGowens has his groove back
The postseason means a new year for Pitt basketball, and in turn means a fresh start for freshman Trey McGowens.
A 6-foot-3 guard from Piedmont, South Carolina, McGowens hadn’t scored 20 points in a game since he dropped 30 points on then-ranked No. 11 Florida State on Jan. 14 in an upset victory for Pitt. That was the last win for the Panthers before they embarked on a 13-game slide, a stretch in which McGowens scored in double-digits just three times.
But on Saturday against Notre Dame, he had 16 points, three rebounds and two assists in the win. Some confidence came back to him.
On Tuesday night, he led the way for Pitt with 26 points, four rebounds and two steals.
“I just felt like, probably last game, I played pretty well,” McGowens said. “And then this game was kind of — at the beginning I was kind of hesitant, not shooting a lot of shots, and then (Capel) and Xavier they just told me to shoot the ball because I’m open, stop being hesitant and just play.”
McGowens scored nine points during Pitt’s second half 21-9 run that put them ahead by 27 points.
It was during that run, powered by McGowens, that Pitt sensed Boston College conceding a bit.
“You can feel it on the court when a team is sensing that you’re going a little bit harder than them. Some teams fight back at that and then some teams fold,” Wilson-Frame said. “When they started to fold, we felt it. You could smell the blood in the water and we were kind of feasting for that. That’s what we wanted.”
In pregame meetings, Pitt’s coaches will have defensive assignments drawn up on a board. Players will see their names in parentheses next to an opposing player. But before Tuesday’s ACC tournament game, the Panthers looked down that list, and every defensive assignment was the same.
Guarding Ky Bowman? Pitt. Locking down Jordan Chatman? Pitt. Checking Nik Popovic? Pitt.
Bottling up Bowman is no easy task, but the Panthers did it. They held the current active ACC career scoring leader to 14 points. Bowman went 3-of-10 from the floor, 1-of-5 from three-point range and turned the ball over four times.
“We just tried to make him see Pitt all day. Not one defender,” Wilson-Frame said. “And we did that to everybody on the team, even the bench players. Pitt is guarding him. That was our mentality, to guard him as a team, because he’s a really good player.”
Added Capel: “We didn’t want (Bowman) to see space. I thought (Kene Chukwuka) and Terrell did a terrific job on their ball screen defense, on their coverages and early in the game we got a couple of deflections on Bowman trying to make some passes, and I thought we frustrated them a little bit. We wanted to try to wear them out, too… He missed some shots that he normally makes, but I think our defense and our attention to detail with how we wanted to guard him was really good.”
Chatman struggled for the Eagles too, going 2-of-10 from the floor. Popovic led the way for Boston College with 21 points on 17 shots.
Syracuse is next
As the clock was winding down, Brown had to check himself and his teammates. With 90 seconds to play, Boston College had cut the lead to 10. Pitt had been here before. They’ve had leads that they’ve squandered.
“I was telling myself that it could go either way,” Brown said. “We’ve been on the side of leading then coming up short. So, I was telling them, don’t celebrate until we’re in the locker room. Wait until the clock says zero. Shake hands, be professional about it. We can celebrate, but we need to take care of business.”
The lead lasted through the final buzzer. Pitt is on to the second round.
Tuesday’s victory marked the first time Pitt had won back-to-back games against ACC opponents in more than two years. In 2017, over the span of four days in early February, the Panthers won at Boston College and then topped Syracuse at home.
Up next for Pitt is a meeting with the Orange, who the Panthers lost to twice this season, each time by 11 points. But in each of those games, Wilson-Frame shot well, knocking down 37 percent of his three-pointers across both of those contests.
Growing up in Windsor, Connecticut, just a few hours from the Carrier Dome, Wilson-Frame’s goal was to play for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. That, plus the space the 2-3 zone can leave for shooters like him at times, has him eager for Wednesday night.
“I like playing against Syracuse for a lot of reasons. That was my dream school growing up,” Wilson-Frame said. “Playing against the zone, you know there are going to be gaps where you can shoot. Me being the team’s best shooter, I do kind of relish that, knowing that I’m going to be there for my team.
“I want to hit shots, but I’m trying to get the win.”