GREENSBORO, N.C. — Pitt looked fresh, sharp and refocused in its ACC tournament win over Wake Forest on Tuesday, but Wednesday against N.C. State, the Panthers appeared to be exactly the opposite.
At times, the Panthers seemed tired, frustrated, banged-up and just not quite at their best. In the end, Jeff Capel’s side simply didn’t have the depth to win two ACC tournament games in back-to-back days. And so, his second season at the helm of the Panthers’ men’s basketball team came to an end Wednesday afternoon in the old Greensboro Coliseum, as Pitt fell 73-58 to fifth-seeded N.C. State.
They finish the season with a 16-17 record and a 7-15 mark in ACC play.
“I’m proud of our team. I think we took a step as a program,” Capel said. “Like I just finished telling them, it’s been an interesting year. I think at times we did some really, really good things, and I thought we were a good team. And then there were times where we didn’t do good things and we were not a good team.”
Unfortunately, Wednesday was one of those times. Pitt shot just 29 percent from the floor in the second half. Overall, the Panthers had 14 turnovers, were out-scored in the paint by 12 points and made just 4-of-18 three-pointers. Just two Pitt players scored in double-digits.
JOHNSON’S FOUL CHANGES GAME
Despite all of its mistakes, Pitt was in the game with about 15 minutes to go in the second half, trailing by just four points at the 15:24 mark. It was at that moment when Xavier Johnson drove to the basket and then was whistled for a common offensive foul that was later upgraded to a flagrant-1 foul.
It was Johnson’s fourth foul of the game and the sophomore point guard had to go to the bench. By the time Johnson came back in the game at the 7:52 mark, Pitt trailed by 12 points.
From the moment Johnson picked up that fourth foul, beginning with Devon Daniels hitting two free throws for N.C. State, the Wolfpack broke off a 21-11 run over the next nine minutes. By the 2:12 mark, the Wolfpack led by 20 points and the game was way out of reach.
“I thought that threw off the rhythm of what we were doing offensively and defensively,” Capel said of Johnson’s foul. “(N.C. State was) able to get in the paint, get easy baskets. You know, they were able to get offensive rebounds. They were able to get some turnovers and attack us in transition. But I thought that was a big key when he picked up his fourth foul.”
Capel continued: “I think if you take anyone’s starting point guard off their team, there’s going to be a drop. I thought Xavier was doing some good stuff for us. He was getting in the paint. He was creating offense for us. And when he goes out, our offense changes. Some of the things that we run, some of the things that we’re able to run, those things change, and so I thought that was a big key.”
A 6-foot-3 sophomore from Woodbridge, Virginia, Johnson led all Pitt scorers with 15 points. He also had eight rebounds, two assists and two steals. He was, however, a bit reckless with his possessions, turning the ball over eight times.
N.C. State scored 24 points off Pitt’s 14 turnovers.
After the game, Johnson felt good about the steps Pitt took as a program this season, but admitted he wants more.
“I felt like we worked hard this summer. Everybody came in every day and tried their hardest, but it didn’t go as we planned,” Johnson said. “I think my jump shot is still not there to where it has to be at this level.”
CHAMPAGNIE CAN’T REPEAT HEROICS
A big reason why Pitt was able to muscle its way past Wake Forest on Tuesday was because of the stellar play of freshman Justin Champagnie. He poured in 31 points in the victory and connected on some crucial buckets for the Panthers.
But on Wednesday, Champagnie couldn’t muster up an encore performance. He finished with nine points on 4-of-13 shooting to go along with three rebounds, an assist and two blocks.
N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts marveled at Champagnie’s play on Tuesday, but didn’t cook anything up in the defensive game-plan that was specifically for him.
“He’s a good player. He played a great game yesterday, and we just concentrated on defending the way we did. I sit there and watched him, I was proud — I did tell our guys that he had 31 yesterday and played great,” Keatts said. “But I thought we did a really good job not just on him but most of their guards, forcing them into tough shots. Even the shots they made were tough shots.”
No Pitt player made more than five shots fall on the day. And after the Panthers shot 41.4 percent from the floor in the first half, that dipped by 12 percentage points for the second half. Six Pitt players that saw the floor Wednesday didn’t make a single attempt from the floor.
Trey McGowens was second in scoring for Pitt, finishing with 12 points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals.
NO ANSWER FOR DANIELS
Defensively, Pitt played a decent game, holding N.C. State to 4-of-16 shooting from three-point range and forcing them into 11 turnovers.
But the Panthers did not have an answer for Devon Daniels. There was about a two-and-a-half minute stretch in the first half when he scored 10 points. From the 9:43 mark to the 7:12 mark, he had a lay-up, an alley-oop dunk, a lay-up, a made free throw and a three-pointer.
After scoring 15 points in the first half, he added eight more in the second half, finishing with 23 points, six rebounds, an assist and two steals. Daniels attacked the basket early, then got his floater going. Pitt tried a zone, but just couldn’t seem to contain the 6-foot-5 redshirt junior from Battlecreek, Michigan.
“I started off going hard to the right,” Daniels said. “But when they went in the zone, their big man was down giving me space to operate like in the middle area, so I just read the defense and the floater was open, so the touch was there today.”
Capel said of N.C. State: “I think they’re a really good basketball team. They play really hard, play together. They’re a veteran team. I think they’re certainly very, very worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid.”
The only key player for Pitt set to definitely leave the program is Eric Hamilton, a grad transfer who had a decent game Wednesday, totaling six points, nine rebounds, a steal and a block in 26 minutes of play.
Barring transfers or any other unexpected moves, the core guys of Capel’s foundation in Johnson, McGowens, Champagnie, Karim Coulibaly and Au’Diese Toney – who played Wednesday obviously hampered by an left ankle injury – will all return for the 2020-21 season.
For Pitt, the biggest thing it needs is added depth on the bench behind this core. When Johnson picked up his fourth foul, there wasn’t a player who could run the offense the same way he did. Pitt’s bench totaled just 12 points, and five of those came in garbage time, with less than two minutes to play.
Pitt increased its overall win total from last season and doubled their ACC victories. If Capel’s core continues to improve, if the incoming freshmen can contribute, Pitt can take another meaningful step forward next season. If that steps big enough, maybe we’ll be talking about Pitt deeper into March.