SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Pitt looked gassed in the second half of its eight-point loss at Notre Dame on Wednesday night.
But can you blame them?
Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, Justin Champagnie, and Au’Diese Toney played 38, 38, 35, and 32 minutes respectively. With guard Ryan Murphy out for his second consecutive game, the Panthers don’t have many options off the bench.
Against a team like Notre Dame that moves without the ball, and each player that’s out on the floor can hurt you shooting the ball from 3-point range, it calls for high-intensity and focus on the defensive end at all times.
That type of offense brought all of Pitt’s defensive woes to light inside of the Joyce Center Wednesday night.
Midway through the second half, Champagnie was noticeably fatigued, as he placed his hands on top of his head.
“I was tired,” Justin Champagnie said after the game. “I told coach (Capel) to take me out for a minute. I needed a break. He always tells us that if you’re tired, don’t harm the team trying to be out there.”
And even though fatigue played a part in the defensive struggles against the Irish, Pitt coach Jeff Capel saw something else that hurt his team.
“It was just not having a sense of urgency, that we talked about coming into the game of getting to guys that can shoot the ball,” Capel said. “This was a different game for us. This is a different type of team to defend.”
The defensive struggles weren’t just towards the end of the game when their legs were tired. Notre Dame hit seven 3’s in the first half alone. Letting shooters get comfortable early on can only make life that much more miserable as the game goes on.
“They’re a really, really good offensive team,” Capel said. “They got into a rhythm shooting the basketball, especially in the first half. It gave them separation. You can’t allow a team that shoots it so well to make seven 3s in the first half. We were never able to fully recover from there.”
TOO LITTLE TOO LATE
The mistakes seemed to come in chunks, even though Pitt only tuned the ball over nine times for the entire game. Moreover, the Panthers went on far too many scoring droughts – which has been a common theme with this squad. And to make things worse, these scoring woes require big comebacks with limited time left in the game.
“It’s been a pattern for us, where we get down, we start to come back, and there’s a sense of urgency,” Capel said. “We have to figure out a way to create that to start the game and do that for 40 minutes.”
Examples of such patterns came in losses to Miami, Syracuse, and Duke, all of which were on the road.
“We have to be on all of the time,” Capel said. “On the road, it’s been interesting, when you look at our stats in the second half on the road, compared to the first half.”
The pattern has a lot to do with the lack of experience this Pitt squad has. That became even more alarming against a Notre Dame team is led by four seniors.
“I think that we just came out flat, and we didn’t come out with the energy that we were supposed to in order to win,” Champagnie said.
It’s well known that this Pitt team struggles against a zone defense. A lot of things factor into that. No one on the team has been a consistent threat shooting the outside shot, they don’t have someone that they can throw it inside to and have them draw the attention of other defenders, and they don’t have an exceptional distributor than can pick apart a defense.
So teams will continue to sit back in a zone and make Pitt try to beat them with something they aren’t comfortable with doing yet, shooting from deep.
Pitt came into this game averaging 66 points per contest. They put up 72 points on 42 percent shooting and made eight 3’s – the most in its past eight games.
“They backed off of us,” Capel said. “They dared us to shoot. So we got good clean looks in the second half.”
But before the second half, when Pitt got some looks that eventually had to fall, the first half was full of ups and downs. Johnson and Pitt’s guards looked like they were done overthinking, and started to attack the middle of the zone relentlessly, and even the shots that they had missed early on were really solid looks.
But it eventually went away. Notre Dame started to heat up on offense, and Pitt started to drain all of its energy trying to recover on the defensive end. Two straight travels in the half-court and two other cough ups were all that the Irish needed to open the flood gates.
“We had a six-point lead with about 11 minutes to go in the first half. … We were playing pretty well,” Capel said. “And then we turned the ball over on four out of five possessions. They were able to get some transition 3s from there. We have to do a better job of trying to minimize our mistakes.”
The breakdowns were apparent early on in the game. Pitt started out doubling the post every time Notre Dame forward John Mooney touched the ball. But the Panthers’ learned quickly that you couldn’t keep your attention on just one guy on a team like the Irish.
Mooney started to kick to open shooters, and Pitt’s defense had to abandon its initial defensive game plan.
“We didn’t do a good job of rotation,” Capel said of his team’s defense when doubling the post. “From that point on, (I said) ‘Let’s not double the post anymore, let’s play them straight up’”
Capel alluded to the fact that every other team that Pitt has played has a guy or two that you can play away from to an extent.
Notre Dame finished the game 10-of-27 from 3s, as they missed some decent looks to open the second half. But they did shoot over 46% from the field.
Pitt guards Champagnie, Johnson and McGowens accounted for 52 of the teams 72 points against the Irish. The Panthers three ‘big men’ scored just eight points in 40 combined minutes.
Johnson followed up his late clutch second-half performance in the win against Miami with an impressive first half in South Bend. The 6-foot-3 guard looked to be as comfortable as ever. He scored 12 points on 3-of-5 shooting and appeared to have more energy than anyone on the floor. Offensively, he was decisive. Defensively, he was incredibly active for much of the first half. For the night, he finished with 17 points, five rebounds, four assists, and three steals.