GREENSBORO, N.C. — After Abdoul Karim Coulibaly connected on a close-range shot to tie the game at 66-66, just six minutes and 27 seconds remained in Pitt’s first round ACC tournament game against Wake Forest.
In that moment, they could’ve gone either way. The Panthers could’ve buckled and folded, and let Brandon Childress and the Demon Deacons steal another victory from them. Or, Pitt could settle in and play some of its best basketball of the season.
On the very next possession, Xavier Johnson stole a pass and then threaded it up the court to fellow sophomore Trey McGowens who threw down a dunk, indicating Pitt was choosing the latter and letting everyone in the old Greensboro Coliseum know that the Panthers weren’t ready to go back to Pittsburgh yet.
Coulibaly’s bucket and McGowens’ slam was the start of 17-6 run for Pitt that closed the game out. For the second time in the Jeff Capel era, Pitt won an ACC Tournament game, beating Wake Forest 81-72 on Tuesday.
The Panthers were powered by freshman Justin Champagnie, who felt slighted and provoked by not making the All-ACC Freshman Team, and poured in a career-high 31 points to go along with six rebounds, two blocks and a steal.
ENDING A LOSING STREAK
For Pitt, the loss ends a seven-game slide that began on Feb. 12 with a 20-point home loss to Clemson. Pitt played its last regular season game on March 4, losing by 16 points on the road at Georgia Tech.
When the team got back to campus, Capel gave them two days off to reset and to refocus. He told them to get away from basketball completely – no shooting, no x’s and o’s, no NBA2K. He wanted his players mentally refreshed.
The team regrouped on Saturday and didn’t even have a real practice. Their opponent was still unknown, so they went through individual workouts and got a good lift in. Considering how well Pitt played Tuesday, it might’ve just been the break the Panthers needed for a fresh start.
“Physically, I feel like we were kind of drained, legs were dead,” McGowens said. “But mostly mentally the time off just gave us time to get our mind right, kind of get away from basketball a little bit.”
Added Champagnie: “I think that helped us lot. I feel like getting away from basketball sometimes is good for us as kids, so we could like regain focus on like what’s the task at hand. So I feel like it played a big part in how we came out here and played today.”
Pitt was sharp in their win over Wake Forest. The Panthers turned the ball over 11 times, a mark that isn’t superb by any means, but it’s the least Pitt has had in their past four games.
The Panthers also shot 52.3 percent from the floor, good enough for their second-best shooting performance of the season, only topped by their 52.6 shooting percentage in a win over Boston College on Jan. 22.
Six Pitt players finished in the positive of plus-minus on the stat sheet.
After the game, Capel said the six-day break between the Georgia Tech game and Tuesday was “really, really important” and he bemoaned the fact that Pitt was the lone ACC team that didn’t get a bye week during the regular season.
“This is just a fact; we are a very, very young team,” Capel said. “I thought we hit a wall there after we won the game against Georgia Tech (on Feb. 8). We couldn’t push through. … We have been mired in this losing streak and there’s a lot of stuff written, a lot of stuff said, and these young people read this stuff. As much as you don’t want them to, they do, and it affects them.
“But I just thought physically I thought we were drained but mentally I thought we were even more drained.”
The result of the rest and the refocusing was Pitt’s second ACC Tournament win under Capel. Should Pitt win Wednesday vs. N.C. State, Capel will tied Jamie Dixon for most ACC tournament wins by a Pitt head coach.
COULIBALY BIG OFF THE BENCH
Of the many factors that contributed to Pitt’s victory, one of them was undoubtedly the play of freshman big man Abdoul Karim Coulibaly.
The 6-foot-8 forward from Mali battled in the paint, never backed down from a moment and scrapped for loose balls. He led Pitt’s bench in scoring, tallying 10 points, seven rebounds and a block in 15 minutes of play.
“I think he’s a good player. That’s the very first thing, and I think his transition to college has been a little bit tougher because of the language,” Capel said of Coulibaly. “He’s a guy that for whatever reason, he’s been better in games than he’s been in practice. And he’s a gamer and I thought today he finished. I thought he did a really, really good job out there today.”
Coulibaly didn’t spend the summer with Pitt because he was competing with Mali in the FIBA U-19 World Games. He played well there – scoring 22 points in a win over Latvia and notching four assists in a victory over Canada – but it pushed the start to his college career back a bit. Coulibaly has averaged just 2.4 points and 1.5 rebounds per-game this season.
But he’s played well in spurts lately. Coulibaly tied a career-high in points scored on Tuesday – the only other time he had scored 10 was vs. Virginia Tech on Feb. 15. His seven rebounds were also a career-high.
STEADY GAMES FROM JOHNSON, McGOWENS
The two players that carried Pitt all of last season and in some games this season were Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens. While the pair of sensational sophomores didn’t light up the scoreboard on Tuesday, they did their part. They took care of the ball, played hard defense and set teammates up.
Johnson had a bit of a true point guard game, totaling 10 points, eight assists, three rebounds and three steals, while turning the ball over just three times.
McGowens did a little bit of everything, notching 14 points, three rebounds, four assists and two steals. McGowens knocked down one three-pointer, while Johnson nailed two.
“Trey made some big-time plays, a big-time pull-up jump shot, a big-time pass to Justin cutting on the baseline, and had some really good moments,” Capel said. “For Xavier to have eight assists and only three turnovers, again, I thought he really stirred the engine for us and made some big-time plays.”
Johnson’s eight assists were the most he’s had in a single game since Jan. 22, when he had 10 in the win over Boston College. McGowens’ 14 points were the most he’s had since Feb. 8.
DEFENSE STRONG IN SECOND HALF
Pitt entered the second half trailing by one point, and the game was tied with six-and-half minutes to go. The difference down the stretch was Pitt’s defense. They simply didn’t allow Wake to score easily and they hounded the Demon Deacons’ star guard, Brandon Childress.
After allowing Wake to shoot 57.1 percent from the floor in the first half, Pitt locked-down on defense in the second half and the Demon Deacons shot just 35.5 percent from the floor.
“We were kind of late in our rotations early in the game,” McGowens said. “The energy was there but it was just tough not being in the right spots.”
Pitt also forced Wake Forest into 18 turnovers, the most the Panthers have caused an opponent to cough up since Georgia Tech had 22 turnovers on Feb. 8.
“One of our goals coming into the game was to force turnovers. I thought we did a good job there, we forced 18,” Capel said. “We wanted to get the ball out of Childress’s hands and so we tried to double him, really from the four-minute mark of the first half on, every time he was in the ball screen, and so our guys did a really good job of executing that.”
Childress finished the game with 17 points on 5-of-13 shooting, his worst shooting percentage in four games. He also had four turnovers.
REVENGE AGAINST WAKE
Tuesday was a bit of a revenge game for Pitt against Wake Forest.
Earlier this season, at home on Jan. 4, Pitt blew a 16-point lead to the Deacs and lost by four points. A season ago, the Panthers fell in overtime to the Deacs in Winston-Salem.
Pitt had lost four straight contests to Wake Forest before Tuesday, last beating them on Feb. 16, 2016 in double overtime with Dixon at the helm.
In a sense, Pitt was way overdue for a win against Wake Forest.
“We were talking about before the game started like, just leave it out on the line, like whatever you got and be the better team,” Champagnie said. “Don’t want to go home, nobody wants to go home, so we’re just going to keep fighting and keep pushing.”
Pitt’s next opponent is against another team it hasn’t beaten in quite sometime, N.C. State. Pitt lost to the Wolfpack less than two weeks ago in Raleigh, N.C. by four points. Pitt hasn’t topped N.C. State since Jan. 4, 2014 – a 12-point win in Raleigh for a Pitt team led by Lamar Patterson.
Having just faced the Wolfpack recently, Capel has a decent idea of what Kevin Keatts’ side has in-store for the Panthers.
“There’s some familiarity, but they’re really good and they’re going to run a bunch of ball screens, they have multiple guys that can dribble, pass and shoot,” Capel said of the Wolfpack. “They can come at you in so many different levels… We worry a little bit about fatigue, but hopefully the adrenaline of still being alive and having the opportunity to play will push us through that.”