SYRACUSE — Pitt didn’t exactly have a lot of time to prepare before its game against Syracuse on Saturday, which is typically the case when a team gets into the grind of Atlantic Coast Conference play.
Pitt played Tuesday night and had just a couple of practices before Saturday afternoon’s date with the Orange.
What isn’t typical is the challenge presented by Syracuse’s legendary 2-3 zone defense that is a massive departure from the pro style played by most of the teams in the ACC.
The game plan that Pitt instituted over those few practice sessions involved using freshman wing Justin Champagnie at the free throw line in the middle of the Syracuse zone.
Two minutes into Saturday’s game, that game plan was out the proverbial window. (As far as I can tell, there aren’t any windows in the Carrier Dome.)
Champagnie was called for an unnecessary reach just 30 seconds into the game and picked up his second going after a loose ball just past the two minute mark. He then found a seat on the bench.
“I thought that was big for us,” head coach Jeff Capel said. “He picked up two fouls in the first two minutes of the game. We had to sit him for a while. … Justin has been one of our better offensive players and he’s been our best rebounder all year.”
Without Champagnie, the Pitt offense stagnated. Au’Diese Toney and Terrell Brown tried to replace him in the middle of the zone, but failed to replicate Champagnie’s combination of size, agility and passing ability.
“He’s a spark for us offensively,” Brown said. “When he gets going, everyone gets going. He may be a freshman, but everybody matters.”
Instead, Champagnie had to watch from the bench as his teammates were stymied by the Syracuse defense and Pitt shot 23.1% from the floor in the first half. The knowledge that the Pitt coaches — including former Syracuse assistant Tim O’Toole — had instilled in Champagnie wasn’t paying off with him on the bench.
“When the ball moves side-to-side and the middle, the wings stay up,” Champagnie explained. “They don’t drop back. The bigs move up, as well, so the whole backside baseline is always open for lobs. … We’ve just got to move the ball around, get it into the middle and play from there. That’s a big part of it.”
ON THE BOARD
While Pitt’s offense was struggling, it wasn’t getting much help from its own defense at the other end of the floor. Buddy Boeheim hit 3 of 6 from 3-point range and 6 of 11 overall in the first half for 18 points.
When Boeheim missed, the Orange were getting it back, with seven first-half offensive rebounds and a 27-16 overall advantage on the glass in the first half.
“I thought we got really hurt on the glass in the first half,” Capel said. “If we could just rebound the basketball a little bit better, it’s a different story.”
Not getting defensive rebounds meant Pitt rarely got out quickly in transition, giving Syracuse time to set up its zone and restarting the cycle once again.
“Every play matters,” Brown said. “Long rebounds, short rebounds, offense, defense.”
It was a pretty hopeless situation for the Panthers as they were down by 20 points with 4:51 to play in the first half. But with Champagnie back in the game, the Pitt offense settled down and started to find the cracks in the zone.
“I loved how we fought,” Capel said. “I loved how we competed. I loved how we kept coming,” Capel said. “Proud of our fight. Proud of how hard we played.”
It’s not the first time Pitt has come back from a significant defect this season. They did it to beat North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They did it twice at Miami before ultimately falling short. It’s a credit to the mental toughness of what is still a very young team that they’ve been able to keep things together in those situations.
“We’ve got to stay focused and stay together,” Champagnie said. “We don’t want to be a team that gets down and down on ourselves. We don’t want to splinter and break apart. We’ve just got to stay together, stay the course and fight as one.”
BROWN MAKES A DIFFERENCE
Brown is the most experienced member of the Pitt basketball team and the game at Syracuse was his sixth time facing the Orange in his career.
He’s had some success in those matchups, too. Coming into Saturday, he’d scored 32 points against the Orange, more than any other team in his career, and he scored 16 in the teams’ most recent at Petersen Events Center last March.
Once again, Brown was a factor, coming off the bench for 11 points and seven rebounds.
“I thought he did a good job for us,” Capel said. “I thought he was a bigger presence in the high post. He can make a 15-foot jump shot. He did some good things for us offensively.”
While Pitt’s offensive game plan was torn to shreds, defensively, the Panthers did what they were looking to do against the Orange: minimize ACC leading scorer Elijah Hughes.
Hughes finished with 10 points, just under half of his season average.
That should put another feather in the cap of top defender Au’Diese Toney, and here’s another. After Boeheim’s barrage in the first half, Pitt switched, putting Toney on him instead. Boeheim finished with 21 points after having 18 in the first half.