PITTSBURGH – Just 24 games into his collegiate career, Justin Champagnie can already cross off a standing ovation from his bucket list.
It came Saturday in the waning seconds of Pitt’s win over Georgia Tech at the Petersen Events Center. As Champagnie exited the court for the final time, those rooting for the home team amongst the 10,754 spectators in attendance rose to their feet and cheered – an emotional send-off felt throughout the entire building that even drew a slight smile from the otherwise quiet and reserved kid from Brooklyn.
“It was a great moment for me,” he said after the game. “It’s a real big confidence booster.”
And it was well warranted. Champagnie dropped a career-high 30 points, finding the soft spots inside Georgia Tech’s zone for high-percentage looks that he made the most of. He hit on 12 of his 17 shot attempts, went 3-of-4 from deep, scored 17 of his 30 points in a tight second half, and garnered a team-high nine rebounds that all combined for one of the all-time best Pitt freshman performances.
“It felt good. I was flowing – just doing what I was supposed to do,” said Champagnie. “I just felt like going to the middle of the paint was always open, and Trey and X were finding me in the paint. That’s what (Capel) told me to do. It’s always open. And again, just being confident and comfortable in taking and making that shot.”
The game was tied, 52-52, at the five-minute mark of the second half before the Panthers outscored Georgia Tech, 21-12, to close the game. A pair of timely corner 3s from Champagnie, along with his work on the boards, paced the Panthers down the stretch.
“(Champagnie) can really shoot the ball because he spaces the floor,” said Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner. “He shot it well versus Notre Dame on a couple of those players where a guy was coming off the pick and roll because Xavier Johnson can get downhill. He kind of comes up behind and replaces. You’ve got to know where he is on the floor. …He made some tough ones. He’s a good basketball player.”
Champagnie’s point total tied the second-most by a Pitt freshman – the other two being Johnson and Trey McGowens – and marked his fifth 20-plus point mark of the season. He now has scored in double-figures in 16 of 24 games, but his impact extends far beyond that.
As the 12th-leading rebounder in the ACC, Champagnie has grabbed seven or more boards in 10 of Pitt’s last 11 games, and leads the team in both total rebounding (7.3 per-game) and offensive rebounds (57). For a three-star prospect who was labeled the 248th-ranked recruit in the 2019 class, Champagnie sure has proved to be a diamond in the rough in Jeff Capel’s arsenal. And a fine one at that – the kind of diamond only worn on special occasions. But with the way Champagnie’s playing this season, the Panthers have been blinged out more often than not as of late.
“He has talent. He’s a great kid, and he wants to be good,” said Capel after the game. “He’s starting to figure out it’s hard. …You have to conquer hard. So, you need to work harder, and he’s learning how to do that.”
The most impressive aspect of Champagnie’s uncommonly quick transition to the Division I level is that he didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for it. With a pair of early injuries that forced him to miss time, his introduction to the college game resembled more of a baptism by fire.
“Really, he didn’t have a summer like most new guys have to kind of figure things out, and he didn’t have a fall either,” said Capel. “He just jumped into practice. …He’s athletic. He has a toughness about him. He’s learning how to do more things on the perimeter. That’s something when we recruited him we talked about. In high school, he was more of a slasher, and stuff around the basket. We really worked with him on shooting the basketball. The second part of it now is ball-handling. He made a couple of big-time drives today where he was able to finish.”
Following the Notre Dame loss, Capel and Champagnie sat down for an extensive discussion about the importance of consistency, among other things, that resonated into Saturday’s game.
“I had 20 (points), or whatever, and I only woke up in the second half,” said Champagnie. “He told me to come out here and bring energy, and don’t have an off and off switch. Just come out from the jump and just play my game and get comfortable.”
It’s safe to say he listened.