DURHAM, N.C. — Typically, a career-best performance from an unlikely suspect would be enough for Pitt’s men’s basketball team to capture a victory.
But Tuesday evening was no ordinary night for Pitt. Yes, sophomore wing Au’Diese Toney scored 27 points, but the Panthers were going up against the No. 9 Duke Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
It was a homecoming for Jeff Capel, a beloved former Blue Devil who played and coached there, but Duke didn’t take it easy on one of its native sons. Duke unleashed freshman Vernon Carey, Jr., who played like an absolute beast and dominated Pitt, tallying 26 points, 13 rebounds and four assists.
Pitt fought, cutting the lead to three points with about four minutes to play, but Duke wound up winning, taking a 79-67 victory in front of an announced crowd of 9,314 fans.
“I’m proud of my team,” Capel said after the loss. “I thought we fought and put ourselves in a position where we had a chance late. I thought we were able to handle the pressure, able to get downhill, get some shots.”
And then, the second-year head coach of Pitt quickly changed his tone. He was no longer looking on the bright side.
“It’s not good enough,” Capel said. “And I want our program to get to a point where we’re not satisfied with being close. We have to get to a point where we can minimize the mistakes and capitalize when we have opportunities. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer.”
Capel went on to add: “If we build off of it, it can help us. One of the things that happens with us in our area is, if we’re close, these guys get patted on the back. We have to get to a point where we don’t accept that. I don’t, but I’m not out there playing. Our guys have to get to a point where, you’re kind of offended when people say that. It’s a compliment, but it’s still not good enough.”
NO ANSWER FOR CAREY
One of the steps Pitt needs to take in getting better is sticking to a game-plan and playing with a bit more toughness in the paint. In the years to come, Capel will need to add players with size and strength too.
But few teams this year have been able to stop Carey, a 6-foot-10, 270-pound specimen who is the son of a former Miami Dolphins’ offensive lineman. Carey is averaging 17.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per-game this season. He is projected to be a lottery pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
“They killed us inside. Especially with Vernon,” Capel said. “He was very efficient and they do a great job of getting him the basketball.”
Carey shot 11-of-17 from the floor, a performance that featured three earth-shaking dunks and one smooth three-pointer. Pitt’s plan was to deny him the ball, but the Panthers kept leaping for steals and he exposed them.
“We kept trying to gamble, like trying to get steals, and he’s too big. That’s not going to happen. And so, we gave up position. Our plan was to try to make him catch it deep and then go double and not let him get to the right shoulder. We didn’t do a good job of it,” Capel said. “It’s hard though. You can have a game-plan, but when you get out there and see the size and the footwork and the strength that he has and the touch that he has, it’s a difficult cover.”
The inside opened up a bit for Carey at times too because Pitt had to worry about Duke’s shooters. Six different Blue Devils made a three-pointer, and Jordan Goldwire knocked down three in the first half.
TONEY GOES OFF
Pitt’s usual playmakers didn’t play well against Duke. Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens combined to shoot 3-of-17 from the floor for just 11 points. The backcourt duo also had nine assists, but also coughed up five turnovers.
The man trying to will Pitt to a victory was Au’Diese Toney. The 6-foot-6 Huntsville, Alabama native played fearlessly and efficiently. Entering the game, he had just one dunk on the season. Tuesday night he had four.
Toney’s slam with 38 seconds to play was meaningless in its relationship to the final score, but it was magnificent. After Justin Champagnie missed a three-pointer, Toney jumped over what seemed like the entirety of both teams to put the ball back into the net.
“I surprised myself. I just seen it come off the rim and I just went for it,” Toney said. “I just kept my eyes on the rim. I didn’t know the man was underneath me until I dunked it.”
In all, Toney shot 11-of-19 from the floor and made 3-of-4 three-pointers. He also had four rebounds, an assist and zero turnovers. He didn’t seem intimidated one bit by Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“I was just taking confident shots,” Toney said. “Picking my spots and stuff like that. I feel like my offense can keep us going and be the sparkplug… It’s just another game. Every game, you got to play your hardest and leave it all out on the court. You never know when you’re going to ball again.”
The only other Pitt player to score in double-digits was Champagnie, who tallied 13 points, seven boards, a steal and a block. He and Toney both played all 40 minutes of the game.
COACH K STILL PROTECTIVE OF CAPEL
Late in the first half, while Xavier Johnson was shooting free throws, Krzyzewski thought that the Cameron Crazies got – well – a bit too crazy. As Johnson shot, the fans chanted, “Jeff Capel, Sit-With-Us!” It’s a chant typically reserved for recruits visiting Duke.
This, apparently, did not sit well with the most winningest head coach in men’s Division I college basketball. Krzyzewski stood, waived his arms and shouted across the court at those fans until they shut up. A nearby referee had to calm down the veteran coach.
At halftime, Krzyzewski walked over to those supporters – his face boiling with embarrassment and anger – and told the Crazies not to make fun of “one of our guys.” Up until that point, Capel – who had played in 129 games at Duke between 1993 and 1997 – was treated well. When he was introduced during pregame festivities, there was nothing but cheers.
Capel is not the only pupil of Krzyzewski’s to coach in college basketball, but this was Capel’s first time in the building as an opposing coach. So, while Krzyzewski’s former point guard wasn’t sporting the Duke blue, it was clear that he is still protective of him.
“Jeff can sit with me anytime. He’s like a son to me,” Krzyzewski said. “This is a brotherhood.”
Capel said he didn’t hear the chants because he was “locked-in on the competition.” During his time as a player at Duke, the Blue Devils appeared in three NCAA tournament appearances and won two regular season ACC titles. He was estatic to be back, but admitted that it felt odd being on the other side.
“It was great being back, to being honest with you. It was a little weird walking in here. A completely different entrance,” Capel said. “And just being here, but not with Duke. But when competition starts man, it’s competition.
“I’m not sure I had expectations. As my dad would say, we had enough to say grace over worrying about Duke, instead of me worrying about my feelings.”
As with all basketball games played in recent days, at any level, there was somewhat of a somber tone that hung over the match-up between Pitt and Duke. On Sunday, NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were killed with seven others in a helicopter crash outside of Los Angeles, California.
During pre-game warm-ups, Duke and Pitt players wore t-shirts with No. 8 on the front and No. 24 on the back, the two numbers the Black Mamba sported during his 20-year run with the Los Angeles Lakers, which saw him win five championships. Before the game started, a moment of silence was held for 24.8 seconds.
On the first possession of the game, the Cameron Crazies didn’t cheer for Duke. Instead, they chanted, “Kobe! Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!”
“Everyone’s shocked. It’s been emotional, especially for our guys, because he was a hero and an idol to those guys as a player,” Capel said. “What he meant to the game of basketball… When you’re in the conversation as one of the greatest ever, then nothing else really has to be said basketball-wise. It’s been an emotional few days, just like it has been for everyone.”
Krzyzewski entered the post-game press conference wearing one of the warm-up shirts honoring Bryant. With Team USA, he coached Bryan on three different teams, including two that won Olympic Gold Medals in 2008 and 2012. During that time, Krzyzewski and Bryant formed a friendship.
“Kobe was one of my players. I coached him on three teams. He was my leader. We had special moments, private and public. He was amazing with my grandkids,” Krzyzewski said. “Kobe was the key guy in building the continuity of culture for those 11 years that I coached. His relationship with LeBron was the key. Those two guys were magnificent together. I’m sure LeBron is going through a lot. They were the foundation and everything else was built around the relationship that those two guys developed. They allowed me to help in that a little bit, but also to coach them. Those are moments in time. Those moments don’t happen for everyone.”
Krzyzewski said that he, his assistant coaches and his players all consoled each other in his office yesterday. One of Kryzewski’s grandsons adopted the nickname Mamba after meeting Bryant at the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. Krzyzewski said Bryant would kiss his granddaughter’s hands and call them princess.
“They saw me crying. And I talked to them about, look, adults cry. Men cry,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s been bad. I have been very emotional about it.”