CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The fans who religiously attend games at the Dean Smith Center like it’s a church service are a difficult bunch to deflate. Clad in Carolina Blue, they’re loud, they’re rowdy, they’re proud and they typically stick around until the final buzzer sounds.
Having played at the arena many times as a Duke Blue Devil, Pitt head coach Jeff Capel told his team before the game that if the fan support dwindles, the Tar Heels will quit.
“If we just attack them, attack them, attack them, their fans will basically just die out,” Pitt freshman Justin Champagnie remembers Capel saying. “And when their fans die out, they’re going fold up. So just keep pushing.”
On Wednesday night, the Tar Heels’ fans had enough with about 22 seconds to play. As Champagnie was at the charity stripe, sinking a pair of free throws, UNC supporters began to groan, rise from their seats and file out. The game was over. They had accepted defeat.
While some will argue that it’s a “down year” for UNC, it’s been a “down few years” for the Pitt Panthers. But Capel is trying to change things, and on the same day that Pitt extended his contract by two years, he hit a milestone in his makeover of the program.
For the first time since Feb. 8, 2017, Pitt won an ACC road game, beating the mighty North Carolina Tar Heels in the Dean Dome, 73-65.
The importance of the victory cannot be overstated. And it was a surprising outcome too, considering Pitt had blown a home game against Wake Forest just four days ago.
“It means a lot. This is one of the storied programs in the history of college basketball and one of the storied buildings. There’s a lot of history, a lot of tradition here,” Capel said. “We have to build off it though.”
‘Lethargic’ first half
As good of a win that this was, things did not start out swell for Pitt. The Panthers did jump out to a 10-9 lead, but that quickly faded away as UNC went on a 16-6 run. The Tar Heels went on to lead by as many as 14 points.
Pitt was outmatched on the boards, losing the rebounding battle 42-27, but what really caused them to fall behind was their lack of efficiency on shooting. The Panthers shot just 32.1 percent from the floor in the first half and hit just 1-of-10 three-pointers.
It was an especially off-game for Ryan Murphy, who is arguably Pitt’s best three-point shooter. The junior college transfer finished with just four points on 1-of-8 shooting for the night, going 0-for-4 on three-point attempts. Roy Williams said after the game that keeping an eye on Murphy was an emphasis for the Tar Heels’ defense.
Terrell Brown also lacked some energy in the first half, and really, throughout the game. In 17 minutes, he didn’t grab a rebound or attempt a shot.
Capel called Pitt’s play in the first half “lethargic.”
“I don’t know if we were overwhelmed by the moment,” Capel said. “Being at Carolina and the Smith Center and the jerseys up in the rafters and things like that, but we just didn’t have the type of energy that’s necessary to be able to win a road game.”
Champagnie breaks out
Pitt began to regain its footing in the second half. Suddenly, space could be created, passes were crisp and shots were falling. On defense, Pitt created chaos for UNC, and Brown energized the unit with a pair of blocked shots.
Where the game really turned for Pitt was a stretch of about four minutes – from the 14:02 mark to the 10:10 mark – where freshman wing Justin Champagnie flushed four three-pointers. Pitt went from trailing by five points to leading by one.
“I just saw one drop and I got more comfortable and confident and started letting it go… I don’t know,” Champagnie said with a laugh. “I’m just comfortable shooting that shot and I just knocked them down.”
Champagnie suddenly catching fire from beyond the arc was surprising. Before Wednesday, he not shot well for Pitt, making three’s at about a 22 percent clip. He showed a glimpse of his shooting abilities against Canisus on Dec. 30, connecting on 5-of-6 triples, but defenses in the MAAC are a bit less equipped than ones in the ACC.
Still, the 6-foot-6 Brooklyn, New York native showed off. In addition to his 22 points, he also led Pitt in rebounding with eight boards. He had a pair of blocks, too.
Bouncing back from the Wake Forest loss
Wednesday should have really been Pitt’s second-straight ACC win, but on Sunday they blew a 16-point lead against Wake Forest and missed their final five shots of the game in a 69-65 loss at home.
On Monday at practice, the team had a meeting and began healing and regrouping from the dispiriting defeat.
“After the Wake Forest loss, we felt like the biggest thing was, we weren’t together,” sophomore guard Trey McGowens said. “That was the biggest takeaway. Going forward at practice the next day, we worked out our differences. Just coming together, having each other’s back.”
McGowens seemed to take on a leadership role in the game against UNC. He led the team in scoring and assists, dropping 24 points and eight dimes. He also had four steals and six rebounds.
“More particularly in this game, (Capel) had been stressing ‘stay together,’” McGowens said. “We need everyone, so, I just trusted my guys.”
In the practice the day after the loss to the Demon Deacons, Xavier Johnson said he wasn’t himself. The dynamic guard said he wasn’t trying to score and he was beating himself up over the tough defeat. After practice Monday, he received a text message from Capel, with a clip from the Lion King.
In the animated 1994 Disney classic, Rafiki (a wise baboon) tells Simba (an immature lion) that, “The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.”
Johnson seemed to choose the latter. He totaled 17 points, three assists and three rebounds on Wednesday in 32 minutes of play.
“I got to move on, because I got more games in me,” Johnson said.
Getting used to winning
Wednesday was Pitt’s first-ever win in Chapel Hill, having lost in their previous seven trips there. The victory also snapped a six-game losing streak against the Tar Heels.
“It’s big. Everybody in the locker room was smiling. We’re happy,” Champagnie said. “We haven’t done this in a long time, so, it felt good all around.”
But while this win is sweet, Pitt doesn’t want to linger on the celebration too long. Yes, the end of the ACC-winless streak is great, but this game doesn’t have to be – and shouldn’t be – Pitt’s Super Bowl. There’s a lot of basketball left and one regular season victory can’t change everything. But it can be the kick-starter Pitt needs to be competitive in ACC play for the remainder of 2020.
“I don’t think it signals anything,” Capel said. “We are a team and a program that’s a work in-progress. I would love for it to happen overnight and for it to happen quick, but I understand that it’s a process and it takes time… This is a great win for us and something we can build off of, but I don’t think it says anything about the state of our program.”
Johnson added: “We were glad, but at the same time, that’s something you got to get used to… It meant a lot. From last year, my experience, that was hard for me, because I’m not a loser and I know we’re not losers either.”