WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Jeff Capel had been worried.
After his Pitt men’s basketball team beat Duke – his alma mater – four days ago, the Panthers were riding high. They had won three straight road games. The numbers said they were one of the best rebounding and three-point defending teams in the nation.
Pitt hadn’t lost in a month. Could the Panthers handle success? Could they take care of business against a Wake Forest team that was 0-6 in ACC play?
The answer, we found out Saturday, was no.
“We have to understand what it means to show up every day,” Capel said. “(Against Duke) we showed up, we had edge; you know, we’ve had that. For the first time in a long time, we didn’t have it.”
Pitt gifted Wake Forest its first ACC win of the season, and the first-ever in-conference victory for first-year Deacs’ head coach Steve Forbes. The Panthers didn’t have an answer for Wake’s three-point barrage, and a pair of sharp shooters – Ismael Massoud and Jonah Antonio – burned them. The duo combined for 46 points as Wake won 76-75, snapping the Panthers’ win streak.
The Panthers are now 0-4 all-time at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
“We got to respect the game. We can’t come out here and take things for granted,” Pitt sophomore Justin Champagnie said. “We’re not going to sit here and beg for fouls and stuff.”
Not focused in preparation
Pitt (8-3; 4-2 ACC) should have absolutely beaten Wake Forest (4-6; 1-6 ACC) and done so handily. But for whatever reason, the Panthers didn’t seem up to the task. It never felt like Pitt was going to run away with the game.
The Panthers now have to figure what went wrong and how to learn from this. A good place to start might be how they practiced and prepared over the last four days. The high from the Duke win still lingered. Pitt wasn’t locked-in on Wake Forest.
“It wasn’t our game. We were not focused,” Pitt sophomore Abdoul Karim Coulibaly said. “Every day you have to show up and get in better focus for practice. We have to move on (from the Duke game)… For me, it’s not a big deal. I know myself.”
Indeed, the 6-foot-8 native from Mali was one of the few Panthers who seemed fully-engaged in the game. He finished with a career-high 15 points and also had four rebounds, two steals and a block in 25 minutes of action.
“I was just open. They were looking for me and passed me the ball,” the big man said.
Still, Champagnie and Capel both admitted that practice was a bit bumpy this past week. Capel said he “knew” on Thursday that his players hadn’t moved on from the Duke win. Champagnie said the Panthers were “lackadaisical” in their preparation this past week and that Capel almost kicked the players out of practice.
“It’s something we all worried about and tried to have our guys mindful of,” Capel said. “Obviously, we didn’t do a good enough job of getting that message across.”
Three-point defense unusually off
Coming into this game, Pitt had one of the best units in the nation when it came to defending against three-pointers. The Panthers were allowing their opponents to make just 26.1% of their behind-the-arc attempts, a mark that was fifth best in all of Division I men’s basketball. ACC opponents had made just 24.5% of their three’s against Pitt.
Pitt also ranked 16th in the country in defensive effective field goal percentage (.443) and 34th in adjusted defensive efficiency (92.8). The Panthers defense had been pretty good, to say the least.
Wake Forest disregarded those statistics though. From the beginning, they looked for shots along the three-point arc. And they found them, and made them.
Forbes’ side made 15-of-32 three-pointers, a 46.9% mark, the best Pitt has allowed this season from an opponent.
The two players most responsible for Wake’s tremendous shooting efforts were Ismael Massoud and Jonah Antonio. Massoud started the game off going 5-for-5 from three-point range and finished with a career-high 31 points. He made 8-of-10 three’s in all, a program-best for three-point shooting percentage by a player in one game. Antonio had 15 points, and his back-to-back three’s near the 10-minute mark in the second half powered Wake to a 63-57 lead. From there, the Deacs’ never relinquished it.
“This sucks, the fact that we perform like this,” Capel said.
Usual suspects lead Pitt
Pitt’s typical stat-sheet stuffers led again against Wake Forest. Xavier Johnson, the ACC’s leader in assists, had 14 points, eight dimes, three boards and two steals. Au’Diese Toney had 11 points, seven rebounds and three assists. Champagnie added a team-high 17 points, a team-high eight rebounds and a team-high five steals.
“I felt a little more pressure than usual, nothing special. I got to my spots,” said Champagnie, who saw his streak of five straight games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds come to an end. “I’m not going to make excuses. I got to get to the glass more and rebound for my team.”
Johnson tried to save the day at the end of the game. After Pitt switched to a zone late, the Panthers cut Wake’s lead from 10 points to one, a run capped off by an in-traffic lay-up from Johnson. Pitt had one more shot before the final buzzer would sound, but Johnson’s long two-point attempt clanked off the rim.
In a game where it lost by a single point, Pitt can point to two numbers for the loss: Seven missed free throws and 11 turnovers. A team that was a bit more focused and a bit more prepared could’ve avoided those mistakes.
After the loss, Champagnie and some others took it upon themselves to deliver a message to try and get the team to move on quickly and to refocus. The North Carolina Tar Heels come to Pitt on Tuesday.
“Right after the game, we said this is going to make us or break us,” Champsagnie said. “Last year, we came off a big win and then we lost, and then we lost eight straight. It broke us down. We don’t want to go through that again. Stay off social media. Just focus on us and get back in the gym tomorrow. We got a big one coming up.”