PITTSBURGH — Facing Wake Forest on Saturday in its first ACC game in over a month, Pitt had to go without sophomore wing Au’Diese Toney, who missed the game with an elbow injury suffered in practice.
In stepped Justin Champagnie and Ryan Murphy, who played 39 and 40 minutes, respectively, as the Panthers found a way to go without Toney, one of Pitt’s better rebounders and defensive players.
They responded, with Murphy leading the Panthers with 18 points on 7 of 12 shooting and 4 for 6 from 3-point range and Champagne adding 11 points and eight rebounds.
It wasn’t enough for Pitt to pull out a win, with the Panthers dropping a 69-65 decision, but Murphy, in particular, was a catalyst as Pitt jumped out to a 16-point first-half lead.
Murphy started the season by shooting 50% or above from 3-point range in Pitt’s first two games, but went through and extended period of struggles with his shot, shooting just 20% from Nov. 15 to Dec. 16.
After some extra time in the gym that coincided with a pair of breaks in Pitt’s schedule, Murphy feels like he’s back on track. He hit 3 of 7 against Binghamton on Dec. 20, 4 of 7 against Canisius on Dec. 30 and hit 4 of 6 against the Demon Deacons.
“I read some stuff on Twitter and it was basically saying I couldn’t shoot,” Murphy said. “I was like, ‘Alright, bet.’ I went home and I was literally lived in the gym at my house. It felt good, because I know I can shoot the ball really well. Guys do a good job of finding me when I’m open. I felt like I got going and it feels like it’s back.”
Murphy came to Pitt after transferring from UNC Charlotte to a junior college and then to the Panthers. It’s a journey that’s caused him to embrace being an underdog.
“I definitely play with an edge,” he said. “I feel like I’m an underdog. I look like a frat boy. I have a combover. I’m about 6-foot-2. So I feel like every night I go out there, I’ve got to prove everyone wrong.
“I talk about it a lot that everything is a marathon for me, from where I was at Charlotte to where I am now. I trust in myself and the coaches and everyone around that to just keep working and stay together.”
But despite his outward appearance, Murphy can be key contributor for the Panthers. After his hot start against the Demon Deacons, he drew an outsized level of attention from Wake Forest for the rest of the game.
“I thought that there was more attention on him in the second half,” head coach Jeff Capel said. “I thought we missed him a few times on some of the plays, some of the movements offensively. … But I thought Wake had their antenna up a little bit more in the second half to get to him a little bit quicker.”
“Usually, I would get a little freedom off a bump, off a little screen, but instead, I felt like that arm or that guy’s hand still there,” Murphy added.
With Wake Forest keying on Murphy, Pitt’s lead guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens drove to the basket. It didn’t work for the Panthers on Saturday, but that’s essentially Pitt’s game plan offensively: to use Murphy and Champagnie to keep other teams from doubling Johnson and McGowens and then let their best players win the game.
This time, they went 0 for 3 on the final three possessions, with McGowens’ last layup attempt blocked in the final seconds of the game.
“I thought [McGowens] had a good look at it and the guy just blocked it,” Murphy said. “That’s basketball in the last minute. Tensions are high. Guys are trying to make the right play. We lost.”