BLACKSBURG, Va. — Pitt point guard Xavier Johnson played 26 minutes on Saturday in Pitt’s loss on the road against Virginia Tech. In Pitt’s last nine games, Johnson had only played under 35 minutes one time. But there was a reason for Johnson’s limited playing time against the Hokies.
This first half might have been the worst first half of his college career. Johnson, who averages 11.8 points and 5.1 assists per game, laid a goose egg in each of those two stat categories heading into the locker room at halftime on Saturday.
Even with the abysmal performance from Pitt’s leader, they trailed by just nine points going into the half. But then things looked different when the two teams were ready to start things back up in the second half. Johnson was sitting on the bench with his warmup shirt on.
“He didn’t deserve to start in the second half,” Capel said. “Look, you deserve what you get when you play for me. It’s not a birthright or whatever that you’re going to start. Those other guys closed the half well, we thought we had something good with them, and we wanted to play those guys to start the second half.”
That was indeed the right move at the time, and even though that Capel said it wasn’t just to push Johnson’s buttons, it did result in a completely different second half.
But Pitt never had a chance to take a stab at the Virginia Tech lead –without Johnson — that, at one point, ballooned to 19 points. At the 14:58 mark, Johnson finally took off his warmup and checked in. The Panthers were down 16 points, and things looked as if they were going to continue to escalate in the Hokies favor. But from that point on, led by Johnson, Pitt fought and clawed its way back into the ballgame.
At one point Johnson scored seven straight points, he had a hop in his step on the defensive end, and from the 7:35 mark, until just under a minute left in the game, Pitt was within 10 points. At one point, they had the 19-point lead down to only six.
Once again, though, it was too little too late for Pitt. Its early uninspired play is too much to handle for a team that a squad full of inconsistent scorers, combined with a fatigued defense.
“We can’t dig our self a hole like we did again,” Capel said. “And, again, we show we can get up off the mat and fight back, but we have to figure out a way where we don’t have the hole that big.”
Highlighted by Johnson, this year’s Pitt squad has been defined by the long stretches of play where they seem to forget where they once found success. But against the Hokies, Johnson never stopped going. He finished the game with 11 points, four rebounds, and one assist.
“He responded,” Capel added. “He played better in the second half, but we need every guy on this team to play like they’re capable of all the time in order for us to have a chance to win.”