By Brennan Doherty, Correspondent
RALEIGH, N.C. – Pitt men’s basketball’s most disappointing week of the season ended with a strong effort from an undermanned group on the road – but yet another loss.
Dealt an unexpected blow with the departures of their second- and third-leading scorers just days ago, the Panthers fell 65-62 at N.C. State at PNC Arena, as the undermanned squad now finds itself on a major skid as the regular season nears its end. Despite a second-half rally that provided promise after a tough first half, the end result was a familiar one for coach Jeff Capel’s team, which is facing the unusual task of retooling personnel this late in the season.
The exodus of wing Au’Diese Toney and point guard Xavier Johnson underscores the bleakness of what’s now a five-game losing streak for Pitt (9-10, 5-9 ACC). Only six weeks a removed from an 8-2 start and a firm spot on the NCAA Tournament bubble, the Panthers have lost eight of their last nine and the program’s losing streak against N.C. State (12-9, 8-8 ACC) stands at 12 games.
An encouraging sign for the Panthers, freshman point guard Femi Odukale scored a team-high 18 points in the loss. Pitt’s leading scorer on the season, Justin Champagnie, chipped 15 points in the loss, as he also grabbed 11 rebounds to record his ACC-leading 12th double-double of the season. N.C. State senior guard Braxton Beverly scored 14 to lead the Wolfpack
N.C. State was led in scoring by Jericole Hellems, who scored 15 and was supported by Braxton Beverly (14 points).
As expected, the early stages of Sunday afternoon’s tilt made one thing clear: The Panthers now have to be even more reliant on Champagnie, something both Pitt and its opponent were aware of.
In addition to being hounded by Wolfpack defenders, Champagnie picked up a technical foul late in the first half for something said or did as teammate Gerald Drumgoogle Jr. prepared to shoot a free throw.
The game’s opening minutes made it clear scoring would be difficult for the Panthers, who outside of Champagnie looked largely like a group of players only now forced into playmaking roles after previously watching their teammates shoot the ball.
A four-point play by senior Nike Sibande brought Pitt within one, 12-11, near the midpoint of the first half, but the Panthers otherwise struggled to find any sort of momentum plays or sustained runs, shooting 23.3% in the fist half.
N.C. State didn’t find much success offensively in the first half, either, but managed to take a 31-21 lead into the break thanks to the ability to regularly get to the free throw line a balanced scoring effort. Wolfpack guard Braxton Berverly, by himself, shot 7-of-7 at the stripe in the first half.
A strong start to the second half pulled Pitt within four points at 33-29, as the Panthers went on an 8-2 run that included a 3-pointer by freshman Femi Odukale, making just his third start of the season.
But N.C. State went on a 12-2 run, powered largely Beverly and Hellems, to build its advantage to 14.
To Pitt’s credit, the Panthers appeared to be one the ropes but answered with a 18-7 run of their own – capped off by a 3-pointer from freshman William Jeffress to make it a 3-point game, 52-49. Along the way, Champagnie picked up a second technical foul, but it was the Class B variety, so he was not ejected. The foul came on a dunk, as it appeared Champagnie either held onto the rim for too long or slapped the backboard.
Big second-half efforts from Champagnie – he scored 10 of his 18 after the break – the youngster Odukale and senior center Terrell Brown powered a Panthers group that shot 48.1% from the field in the second half.
Down the stretch and fully in the game, Pitt had a chance to make it a 2-point game with 1:15 remaining, but Jeffress missed a pair of free throws. A few possessions later, Sibande also came up empty at the free throw line, as Pitt was unable to capitalize. As a team, the Panthers went 13-of-20 from the stripe. From that point on, N.C. State was able to see out the win, despite struggling at the line, as well.
With two games remaining in the regular season, Pitt returns home to face Wake Forest on Tuesday. The Panthers lost at Wake Forest on Jan. 23, 76-75.