CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Pitt showed its roster is deeper than just its “Big 3” of Justin Champagnie, Xavier Johnson and Au’diese Toney on Wednesday night against Miami.
While the trio was each averaging 16.4 or more points per game before Pitt’s ACC opener, no other player was averaging more than 5.4 points per game.
With Champagnie picking up two fouls over the first three minutes and 55 seconds and sitting the rest of the first half, Johnson picking up two fouls after scoring seven points and Toney limited to four points over the first 20 minutes, Panthers coach Jeff Capel needed other players to contribute.
Capel was able to go 12-deep against the Hurricanes during Wednesday night’s 70-55 victory with eight players seeing at least 12 minutes on the court and 11 players playing at least five minutes.
“Again, we think we have more talent in the guys,” Capel said. “When the opportunity presents itself, they have to be ready.
Four freshmen — John Hugley (nine points), Noah Collier (four rebounds), Will Jeffress and Femi Odukale – played nine or more minutes and combined for a plus-minus of 10 while they were on the court to pick up the slack.
Sophomore guard Ithiel Horton found his shooting touch, scoring 18 points, all in the second half and Toney responded after the slow start scoring 11 points in the second half.
“Those (freshmen) guys are talented and we need them to grow up very quickly,” Capel said. “The two times we’ve been on the road they’ve done very good things.
“We were in a lot of foul trouble in the first half. I thought John Hugley in the first half was terrific. He gave us a presence down low and was able to score and was able to draw some fouls. I thought Femi [Odukale] played really well and got extensive minutes with us being in foul trouble at point guard position. I thought he came in and did a really good job of running our offense.”
‘ITHIEL NEEDS TO BELIEVE IN ITHIEL’
Horton didn’t hold back when asked how good it felt to regain his shooting rhythm on Wednesday night.
“Oh, hell yeah,” Horton said with a chuckle. “I felt really good tonight. I’m gonna try to keep it going, too.”
After shooting 7 for 24 from 3-point range, including a combined 0 for 8 in Pitt’s past two wins over Northwestern and Gardner-Webb, Horton broke out of his shooting slump. Horton buried 4 out of 5 3-pointers in the second half and shot 6 for 8 overall to help Pitt pull away with a 19-2 surge.
“I think anytime when you see the ball go in the basket, that gives you confidence,” Capel said. “That makes you believe in yourself a little bit more. We believe in him. His teammates believe in him. You know, Ithiel has to believe in Ithiel.”
Horton, a 40.9 percent 3-point shooter and 43.3 percent overall shooter as a freshman at Delaware during the 2018-19 season, appeared to break out of his shooting struggles with a 5-for-10 performance against Northern Illinois on Dec. 5. But Horton said even in that game, his shot just “didn’t feel right.” But on Wednesday, Horton felt as if things finally started to click for the first time this season.
“If you’re known to be a 3-point shooter and my shot is ‘electric,’ it can definitely be frustrating because you know what you can do and you’re just not showing it. You have friends and family back home watching you and supporting you, but you’re not showing what you can do. But as long as I’m alive I’m going to keep fighting. I’m just getting started.”
WINNING ON THE GLASS
Pitt continued to win the rebounding battle, collecting 40 or more boards and finishing with double-digit advantage in that category for the third consecutive game. But more remarkable was the Panthers pulling the feat off with Champagnie limited and against a Hurricanes team which entered the game tied for 28th in the nation in rebounds per game (43.0).
The Panthers, however, entered the game ranked second in the ACC in offensive rebounds (15.8 per game) and offensive rebound percentage (.395) as well as a plus-56 scoring margin in second-chance points.
Champagnie still led all Pitt players with nine rebounds, but Toney had five and Johnson, Collier and Abdoul Karim Coulibaly each had four.
“We’re a little bit older and a little bit bigger and more athletic,” Capel said. “We have more depth. We worked on it and tried to emphasize it even more every day in practice and it’s helped us. We know it’s something we’re going to have to continue to do.”
NIKE SHOULD MAKE IMMEDIATE IMPACT
Nike Sibande showed what he could bring to Pitt’s rotation in a solid, albeit brief debut. Sibande nailed his first shot – a 3-pointer – for his only points over the eight minutes he played.
Sibande, a transfer from Miami University in Ohio, gained his eligibility as of 5 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon when the NCAA granted a proposal to allow all players with pending waiver requests to be eligible to play this season.
A 6-4, 183-pound senior guard from Indianapolis, Sibande required a waiver after transferring to Pitt after three seasons with the RedHawks, but his request for a waiver was initially denied because the Miami coaching staff refused to support the waiver. In three seasons with the RedHawks, Sibande averaged 15.1 points per game and shot 41.3 percent.
“It was great to have Nike [Sibande] out there and as he continues to get in game shape,” Capel said. “You saw that he got us going with a three, but you saw the rust. He hasn’t played a game since early March. He’s another person that gives us another weapon.”
BECOMING A PRESENCE
Hugley played 11 of his 13 minutes in the first half, helping Pitt hold things together in the frontcourt with Champagnie on the bench. Capel credited Hugley, who finished with a season-high nine points, for his efforts in helping the Panthers earn a 26-20 advantage on Wednesday in points in the paint and their 21-14 rebounding edge in the first half.
“He’s getting in better shape,” Capel said. “That’s the big thing for him. He needs to get in elite-level shape. And then it’s about having an understanding of what we’re trying to do and play to his strengths. I thought he did a great job of that in the first half. He posted hard he took up space he caught it he finished he shot-faked. He became a presence down there. He’s got to do that over and over.”