After a historically poor shooting performance in the first half, Pitt would need a late spark if it wanted to come back and take down Northwestern in Wednesday’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge in Evanston, Illinois.
That spark came from William Jeffress.
The 17-year-old freshman came off the bench and delivered, finishing with seven points, four rebounds and two assists in 33 minutes played. Out of all ten players who saw the court for Pitt, Jeffress and fellow freshman John Hugley led the team with a +/- of seven.
Following nearly every missed shot against the Wildcats, the Pitt bench would shout to the player on the court who had come up empty. Phrases such as “You’re good,” or “Get back on D,” were the most common. However, the bench had something different to say when Jeffress missed his fourth shot in a row with 18:34 remaining in the second half.
“Keep shooting Will! Keep shooting Will!”
Jeffress quickly glanced over at his supportive teammates and nodded.
A few minutes later, the newly confident Jeffress came down and drained a massive corner three, cutting Pitt’s deficit to only three points with just under 14 minutes remaining. The bench erupted.
In that moment, assistant coaches Tim O’Toole and Jason Capel, as well as the players who had been encouraging Jeffress just minutes earlier, jumped up and started clapping, getting loud for the ensuing defensive possession. The momentum had shifted. Pitt was now looking to finish the comeback and win the game.
Led by big plays down the stretch by Xavier Johnson, Justin Champagnie, and Au’Diese Toney, Pitt completed the comeback and defeated Northwestern 71-70.
After the game, Champagnie, who finished with 20 points and 20 rebounds, spoke on the efforts of Jeffress that helped the Panthers earn their third straight victory.
“I expect that from Will,” he said about the youngster’s impact. “I’ve been around Will for a couple of months now. I just feel like he’s got the potential to be a great player and I just love to see it, see him get time like that and come up with a play for us. It’s a big step for the team and a big step for himself.”
Johnson also mentioned Jeffress when speaking about the help Pitt got from its freshman.
“It was big,” Johnson said. “They don’t know how big of an impact they made today until later on they see down the road. To them, it’s a little bit. To us, it’s a lot. WIll came in, made a three, made a pull up jump shot. All of them did really well.”
Jeffress attended McDowell High School in Erie, Pa., about two hours north of Pittsburgh. There, he excelled on the court not only as a player, but also as a leader.
“William (as a freshman) was an established leader,” McDowell head coach Kevin O’Connor told Pittsburgh Sports Now. “Vocal. First in the gym and last to leave. He played 9th grade hoops as a 7th grader and 8th grader. He worked his butt off changing his jump shot (soph-jun year) and became a reliable and consistent three point shooter. He became a half court dunker where as before it was only in transition. He also averaged a double double his last year with us.”
Jeffress, the all-time leader at McDowell High School in scoring and rebounds, ended his career with 1,673 points and 578 boards in just three years after reclassifying to come to Pitt early.
“He is the most complete player I’ve seen play,” O’Connor added. “Both ends. I think his vision ahead (to see the next pass or play) IQ is highest and in my opinion his greatest asset. He seeks challenges no matter what. Always striving to exceed, excel academically too. Simply put- he is a top-shelf young man that’s only going to get better. And that’s scary.”
Jeffress, a four star prospect in both the class of 2021 and 2020 after he reclassed, chose Pitt over a long list of offers including Villanova, Virginia, Penn State, Notre Dame, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Baylor, Memphis, and more.
Ahead of Pitt’s win against Northern Illinois back on Dec. 5, head coach Jeff Capel spoke on playing time and how he distributes minutes.
“I don’t give minutes. Guys earn minutes,” he said.
Through the first four games of the season, Jeffress has earned the fourth most minutes on the team, averaging 21.3 per game. He is also averaging 4.3 points and 2.3 rebounds and will look to crack the starting lineup in the upcoming contest against Gardner Webb on Saturday, Dec. 12 at the Petersen Events Center.