CYPRESS LAKE, Fla. — Needing a basket to give his team the lead, Pitt sophomore point guard Xavier Johnson drove the length of the green-and-cream floor of the 2019 Rocket Mortgage Tip-Off.
Johnson had eight turnovers in the game, but one more would be fatal. With the Panthers trailing by a point, they needed to score on that possession to have a chance to win the game.
Johnson drove to his right, around a defender and leapt into some contact from a Kansas State defender. But he moved the ball wide into his right hand, sent it high off the glass and in to give his Panthers the lead with 10.5 seconds remaining.
The play immediately stood out as a difference-maker in the back-and-forth second half.
“He made a tough shot,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “They made the one play at the end. What else can you say?”
Johnson didn’t stop there. On the following possession, Kansas State guard Cartier Diarra attempted to mirror Johnson’s potentially game-sealing dribble drive. Diarra darted to his left and then attacked straight Johnson, who backed up and absorbed the contract for a game-sealing charging foul against the Wildcats guard.
Diarra made contact with his left elbow — always a good way to earn an offensive foul — but the quickness and agility of Johnson put himself in the proper position, even though he was playing with four fouls and would be ejected if the foul went on him.
It’s been something of a struggle this season for Johnson. After averaging 15.5 points points per game as a freshman in 2018-19, he’s now only averaging 10.6 points per game this season after he made two game-sealing free throws to earn 12 points against Kansas State.
Against the Wildcats, Pitt made a late first-half run with Johnson on the bench in foul trouble. When he came back in the second half, he had eight turnovers compared to no assists — something of a fatal stat line for a point guard. But he didn’t let the way he’s played this season or even earlier in the game effect his performance in the most critical moment.
“These last couple weeks have been hard,” he said. “You’ve got to have perseverance and that’s what we had. … Just making the right play and finding a way to win.”
It will go down as an ugly win, but winning ugly is something these Panthers might need to learn how to do a little bit more often.