PITTSBURGH — Pitt seems to have found its shooter.
The Pitt men’s basketball team spent almost all of its 2019-20 season without a player that really struck fear in the hearts of opponents when it came to being able to hit a clutch 3-point shot.
The Panthers didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in their abilities in the first two games of the 2020-21 season, either, shooting 25 and 26% in two games against the likes of St. Francis and Drexel.
Pitt expected Delaware transfer Ithiel Horton to step into that role, with point guard Xavier Johnson talking during the team’s preseason practices about Horton’s ability as a catch-and-shoot threat.
It took a couple of games for that to shine through, but when it did, what a difference it made. Horton hit 5 of 10 from 3-point range on Saturday, and his offensive breakout combined with strong performances from Justin Champagnie, Johnson and Au’Diese Toney led Pitt to an 89-59 rout of Northern Illinois.
Pitt did a lot of things better against the Huskies than they had in the first two games, but the play of Horton, and how much better Pitt’s offense works when defenses have to extend to cover the 3-point line, was extremely noticeable.
“It was good to see the ball go through the basket,” Jeff Capel said after the game. “It’s interesting. Before probably about a week before the first game, if you looked at our numbers, all throughout practice, we had shot the ball really, really well, especially Ithiel. Ithiel, Xavier, and Au’Diese had really, really shot the ball well from beyond the arc, and that’s something we chart every day in practice.
“The week leading up to the first game, Ithiel’s numbers started to dip, and I really think a big part of it was nerves. I think he wants to do well so badly, and he’s such a good kid, and he’s been waiting and waiting for over a year for this opportunity. I think you’re starting to see him to get more comfortable out there on the court.”
For Horton, the difference was about confidence and believing that he belonged with the team that he spent all of last season practicing against.
“I tried not to put a lot of pressure on myself coming into the season,” Horton said. “But I mean, the first few games obviously showed that I put more pressure on myself than I thought. The difference today was just me actually believing I can actually play on this level, and coming out here and making the shots that I can shoot.”
As Pitt’s offense started to click, something else happened, too. The Panthers got settled into a rhythm and became more team-oriented.
“Since I’ve been here, that’s the best we’ve done sharing the basketball,” Capel said. “26 assists on 30 field goals, it’s pretty incredible. So, I’m really, really proud of that and seeing guys genuinely excited for each other when guys had success.
With Pitt scrambling and scuffling, especially in the season opener against St. Francis, that smoothness to the offensive rotations and ability to find open players was missing — as were the shots falling.
“I think in the first game, I think everyone was just shook, and part of it was that St. Francis punches in the mouth,” Capel said. “That’s what it was. And sometimes when that happens, you have especially veteran guys that you know, you want to change it so bad, and sometimes you can get ahead of yourself and go a little bit too fast. I think we’ve done a much better job in the last two games, of trusting each other of allowing plays to happen instead of feeling like we have to just make a play.”
DEFENSE TO OFFENSE
Pitt forced 18 turnovers from the Huskies and turned those into 33 points on the ensuing possessions. It wasn’t always on a fast break, but Pitt’s offense was running about as well as it has all year when it forded NIU to retreat in transition.
“With our speed, Xavier can really push it,” Capel said. “It’s why we have to have a big always in there that runs, because it flattens the defense out, and then if you get the ball moving from there, you can force teams to start to playing close outs. I thought we did a really good job of sharing the basketball and moving. And obviously, if you make shots, that that makes everything better.”
After allowing the Huskies to shoot 50 percent in the first half, Pitt clamped down from a field-goal percentage basis in the second half, as well, holding NIU to 25.9% in the second half.
“That all starts with defense,” Champagnie said. “So we’ve got to pick it up on the defensive end to get to the offense.”
Capel had said he wanted his team to work on its defensive rebounding, and the Panthers finished with 25 of the 35 potential boards from the defensive glass. That number was more significant until later in the game, when Pitt’s backups and walk-ons were playing.
“It was better,” Capel said. “Everything was better. Again, I think our team is starting to become more comfortable. We’re starting to figure some things out.”
GETTING THEM ALL INVOLVED
Another thing Capel lamented was that his first two games were close enough that he did not get to explore the depths of his bench in an effort to give players a chance to earn a role.
With a 30-point win over the Huskies, that changed, too. Pitt got 18 points from its bench, most of which came in the second half. John Hugley had six points and five rebounds and was the second option at forward after starter Abdoul Karim Coulibaly. Femi Odukale had three points and two rebounds spelling Johnson at the point. Gerald Drumgoole, Jr. had two points coming in behind Horton. Will Jeffress and Noah Collier each got playing time on the wings behind Toney and Champagnie.
Toward the end of the game, freshman big man Max Amadasun made his Pitt debut and contributed two points. Even walk-ons Onye Ezeakudo and Curtis Aiken, Jr. got on the board.
With Amadasun and four walk-ons on the floor when the game was well out of reach, the Pitt starters were providing the energy, standing and cheering with every play.
“Those guys come to play every day, just like us,” Champagnie said. “They work hard. They bust their behinds every day. They push us, they make us better. So, you know, it’s a great feeling seeing them get in a game and a lot of them score and get their first collegiate bucket. So it just meant a lot to us. We were happy for them. “