PITTSBURGH — Here’s the scenario that Pitt faced on Saturday at Petersen Events Center when the Panthers hosted Georgia Tech.
Ryan Murphy, the team’s No. 3 guard in terms of usage, was held out for a third straight game with a concussion. Backup point guard Onye Ezeakudo missed his first game with a sprained ankle.
That left starters Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens to man the backcourt essentially all by themselves, with just little-used freshman shooting guard Gerald Drumgoole to back them up.
Ezeakudo, Johnson, McGowens and Murphy are the only four players to bring the ball up the floor for Pitt this season, so essentially, one of Johnson and McGowens would have to be in the game at all times.
In Pitt’s loss to Notre Dame earlier in the week, head coach Jeff Capel admitted that he thought fatigue was a bit of an issue. That was not going to get better for Pitt’s guards.
And the matchup against the Yellow Jackets was worse. With both on the floor, one of Pitt’s top defenders would have to match up against 6-foot-5 shooting guard Michael Devoe, who leads Georgia Tech with a 16.2 points per game average.
Johnson is listed at 6-foot-3 and McGowens at 6-foot-4. So they’d have to stop Georgia Tech’s leading scorer, with a height disadvantage, and they’d have to do it without fouling and while playing the whole game.
Somehow, they did. Devoe scored 22 points to lead Georgia Tech, but Johnson and Toney helped turn Georgia Tech over 22 times and Pitt added 20 points from those turnovers to earn a nine-point, 73-64 victory.
“The bottom line is 22 turnovers,” Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said. “You’re not going to win any game in this league with 22 turnovers. We’ve had an issue with turnovers. We’ve had some really good improvements. It bit us in the butt today. … Just too many possessions we gave away.”
Pitt was particularly effective in forcing turnovers early in the game, when they played man and double-teamed some ball screens in an attempt to get the ball out of the hands of Georgia Tech’s most dangerous players.
Then, they transitioned to zone in order to protect Johnson and McGowens from foul trouble and keep them fresh despite their heavy usage. It was a combination that was borne out of necessity, but it was also effective.
“Those two guards, [Jose] Alvarado and Devoe, put a lot of pressure on the defense,” Capel said. “When we went zone, I thought we were very active in it for the most part. … I think when we are active, we’ve done a decent job of forcing turnovers this year.”
They have done a good job with forcing turnovers all season, with the Panthers ranked No. 16 in the country in opponent turnover percentage. But to do it against such a tough matchup, with such little margin for error, made Saturday’s performance even more impressive.
“After the loss to Notre Dame, Coach [Capel] just brought us into a meeting and told us that we weren’t going to have the depth that we usually have,” McGowens said. “He just told us we had to step up and he did.”
BEATEN TO THE PUNCH
In its previous two games, Pitt saw both Miami and Notre Dame frequently utilize a zone defense to keep the Panthers’ guards and wings from getting down hill and driving to the basket and to try to capitalize on Pitt’s lacks of success in shooting from 3-point range, particularly with Murphy sidelined.
It was a similar game plan from Georgia Tech, and the Yellow Jackets executed it decently. The big difference was Pitt’s 20 points from turnovers, when the Panthers were able to get down the floor and get the offense moving before Georgia Tech was able to set up its zone.
In the half court, Justin Champagnie came alive by hitting just about every shot he looked at for a career high 30 points, but it was the extra possession and the possessions against an unready defense that tipped the scales toward Pitt.
“[Champagnie] really didn’t effect us as much as the turnovers getting them those extra possessions,” Pastner said. “The middle shot wasn’t as much of an issue. It was just the turnovers.”
Terrell Brown made his first start since Nov. 25 and played one of his best games of the season, finishing with nine points, six rebounds, two blocks and two steals despite playing in foul trouble the whole second half.
Meanwhile, usual starter Eric Hamilton was largely ineffective, producing two points and three rebounds in his 16 minutes before also fouling out.
Pitt was a plus-9 with Brown on the floor for 18 minutes, a minus-6 in Hamilton’s 16 minutes and a plus-5 for the five minutes that Karim Coulibaly played after the other two fouled out.
Capel gave credit to Brown’s play, but didn’t give a reason for deciding at this point to insert him into the starting lineup.
“I thought Terrell got off to a really good start and played with energy and did some really good things,” Capel said.
SETTING A NEW BAR
With the Panthers’ 15th win of the season, they passed their mark from a year ago. It’s fitting that it was Champagnie’s offensive outburst, when combined with the defensive and distributive efforts of Johnson and McGowens (McGowens had a career-high nine assists) that gave Pitt the victory to move past Capel’s first season.
The Panthers’ growth as a young program has not been steady and consistent, but it has been persistent as the team’s top four scorers are sophomores or younger.
“In the beginning of the season, me, Xavier, and Au’Diese [Toney] kind brought it upon ourselves, and then coach had conversations with us and told us to kind of lead,” McGowens said. “The older guys who are ahead of us taught us a lot too, but they didn’t teach us as much as our regular freshman because they didn’t win as much. We kind of had to learn on our own, and just listen to the coaches and learn from there. We just tried to get everybody on board. They’re really receptive.”
WINNING THE CLOSE ONES
Pitt’s win against Georgia Tech could be vital as the Panthers go forward in ACC play. At 6-7, Pitt is just 1.5 games behind Syracuse for the fourth seed in the conference, which earns a vital double bye in the ACC Tournament.
They’re also just a half-game ahead of 10th-place Clemson, which is not currently in line for a bye at all. The loss sank Georgia Tech below that line as the Jackets moved to 5-8 in league play.
“This was a big game for both teams,” Pastner said. “We’re kind of clustered in the standings. We’re kind of jumbled right there. This was a big game. Now, we get the back at our place, but this was a big game. Pitt, they won the big game.”