ATLANTA — The first two offensive possessions of Sunday afternoon’s game for the Pittsburgh Panthers both resulted in turnovers.
It was a sign of things to come.
Pitt (9-7, 5-6 in ACC) turned the ball over 18 times in a 71-65 loss at Georgia Tech (10-8, 6-6). The Panthers went into halftime with 13 turnovers and just eight made field goals, and that disparity was reflected on the scoreboard as they trailed by nine at the intermission. A better second half effort allowed them to claw all the way back and tie the game, but ultimately the damage from the opening 20 minutes was a little too much to overcome.
“We did some good things,” Pittsburgh head coach Jeff Capel said. “But you can’t turn the ball over 18 times, and you have to do a better job from the foul line. I thought those two things were a big part of the game, and a big part of the reason we weren’t able to get a win.”
Xavier Johnson in particular had a rough time in the first half, surrendering six turnovers in just 11 minutes on the court. Georgia Tech came into the game 10th in the country in turnover margin, and they showed why with aggressive ball denials and good team defense all afternoon.
The 18 points the Yellow Jackets gained off turnovers guided the offense over the hump on a day where star point guard Jose Alvarado was quiet with just 12 points.
“They did a good job of stealing the basketball,” Capel said. “We were careless.”
The comeback fell short, but the Panthers looked like they were heading towards a blowout after their first half performance. Johnson was leading the team with just seven points, and Au’Diese Toney didn’t dent the scoreboard until the final two minutes of the first half.
But Toney and the rest of the offense finally hit a stride just after the break. Ithiel Horton scored 10 points in just over four minutes to inject some life into the game after only hitting one field goal in the first half. Horton scored 15 points in the second half alone, and Toney added 13 more in the second half to keep the Panthers in striking distance.
“I was just out of it for some reason,” Horton said on his first half struggles. “But then I came in and switched my shoes — I don’t know if that had something to do with it — and I just told myself ‘you have to step up your game, you’re one of the leaders on this team.’
“Plus when coach banged on one of the lockers telling us to get together, that kind of snapped me out of my funk I was in.”
The shooting percentage skyrocketed from 38.1 percent in the first half to 60.7 in the second. The ball movement picked up with eight assists in the second half, four coming via Femi Odukale.
“He was able to make some shots,” Capel said on the second half from Toney. “Sometimes it’s just as simple as that. The ball went into the basket for him. I like the fact that he rebounded; he had nine rebounds today. That was something he hadn’t done in the past few games that he had done at a very high level early in the season.”
The Panthers were unable to dig all the way out of the hole from the first half, but the second half performance was enough for a little bit of optimism in the middle of a tough stretch of games.
ROUGH AND TUMBLE
Physicality was the order of the day right from the start. Georgia Tech’s aggressive, hands-on defense clashed with Pittsburgh’s propensity to drive the basketball at one end, and a big day from Tech’s big man Moses Wright led to a lot of contact on the other.
There were 26 fouls in the game including three technicals, but Georgia Tech got the better of the chippy play. Wright dominated with a game-high 24 points, and Johnson ended up sitting for almost half of the game with foul trouble.
“We need him in the game,” Capel said. “It hurt us when we didn’t have him in the game. He had to sit for a while, and there were a lot of minutes left. There is a difference when he is not in the game for us.”
Horton was especially frustrated with his technical foul call midway through the second half after the referee assessed the technical when he shouted “and one” after knocking down a shot through some contact.
“It wasn’t even like an aggressive ‘and one’,” Horton said. “It was just like an ‘and one, don’t you see the dude (Georgia Tech defender) is draped all over me.’ Don’t know.”
The other side of the coin with all of the whistles was the free throw shooting, an area the Panthers struggled mightily with. Pitt finished the game just 8-for-15 at the free throw line, and had a stretch with six misses on eight attempts in the first half.
Georgia Tech, on the other hand, took care of business from the charity stripe, finishing 21-for-23 and knocking down its final 14 attempts of the contest.
Both Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech have been led by a Brooklyn-born catalyst this season; sophomore forward Justin Champagnie for the Panthers and senior guard Jose Alvarado for the Yellow Jackets. Both players have shown an ability to completely take over a game at different points this season, but neither proved to be a major factor on Sunday.
Alvarado only knocked down three shots from the floor all afternoon, and Champagnie finished short of both the 15-point and 10-rebound plateaus for just the third time all season. Pittsburgh got most of its contributions from Horton and Toney during that hot second half stretch, while Josh Pastner’s club leaned heavily on Wright to make up the difference. Wright amassed his highest point total in conference play on the campaign, and his 24 points were tied for his season-high in regulation games.
“He is a really good player,” Capel said on Wright. “I think he has given a lot of people in this league problems. They (Georgia Tech) run a lot of stuff through him; he leads their team in field goal attempts. He had a heck of a game this afternoon.”
Both teams needed a player to step up while the usual suspects weren’t as dialed in, and Wright rose to the occasion time and time again.
NEED TO RESPOND
The statement victory over Duke that brought Pittsburgh to 4-1 in ACC play feels like a lifetime ago now. The Panthers have dropped five of their last six games and haven’t won a road game since all the way back on Jan. 6 at Syracuse.
There are only five more scheduled games in the regular season for Pitt, starting with a home test against North Carolina State on Wednesday. The chances of an NCAA Tournament bid are probably gone by now, but the Panthers still need to get this season back on the rails before all of the positive momentum from the hot start evaporates.
Pitt has not finished over .500 in conference play since the 2013-14 season, and it has not even finished at the .500 mark since 2015-16. Both of those marks are still in reach heading into the final five games, but the margin for error is small.
“There is a quick turnaround,” Capel said. “We have to be ready. NC State is going to be a hungry basketball team. They’ve dealt with some adversity, and so we have to be ready. We know they want to play at a fast tempo, so with us turning the ball over, before Wednesday we have to really rectify that.”