By Brennan Doherty, Correspondent
RALEIGH, N.C. – What was already a tough week for Pitt men’s basketball became a bit tougher on Sunday. Despite a strong second-half performance, the Panthers lost their fifth straight game on Sunday, falling 65-62 at PNC Arena to N.C. State. The loss – Pitt’s eighth in its last nine games since starting the year 8-2 – comes just days after the unforeseen departures of juniors Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney, both of whom entered the transfer portal.
After acknowledging his team’s woes at the free-throw line and with turnovers, Pitt head coach Jeff Capel spoke about the admiration he had for his current group of players, one that – suddenly without 39.6% of its offensive production – turned a 14-point second-half deficit into a narrow 63-60 loss.
Understandably, it had been a long week for the Panthers. Johnson and Toney leaving the team with only a handful of games remaining in the season impacted the team on a couple of different levels. For one, it places national scrutiny on the program and provokes questions about the why behind the two players’ decisions. But in terms of the basketball impact, it’s quite rare for a team to have to reshuffle its personnel this late in the season, which the Panthers had to suddenly do once 39.6% of its offensive production on the season entered the transfer portal.
“I’m proud of them, man,” Capel said. “It’s been a long week, and we came and we battled after not playing well in the first half. Our defense allowed us to be within striking distance. I told them at halftime, ‘Our offense will get going, keep defending and we’ll put ourselves in a position to win.’ We just have to shore up some of those mistakes: the finishes, the free throws and the turnovers.”
When asked about how the departures impacted the team’s week, both senior center Terrell Brown and freshman point guard Femi Odukale gave mostly nondescript – even if true – answers on how the team kept its preparation the same and was ready to get out on the court after a tumultuous string of days.
What was interesting, however, was the differing answers Brown and Odukale gave when asked whether they were surprised by their former teammates’ decisions to step away from the program.
“No, we weren’t – as a team,” Brown said. “We weren’t surprised.”
Odukale, meanwhile: “I’d say we were surprised, yeah. Everybody was surprised, but you can’t look at that; just have to keep going.”
ODUKALE MAKES STRONG IMPRESSION
Entering Sunday’s game, Odukale had made two starts on the season, but the matchup against the Wolfpack was his first starting assignment in his new role as the team’s No. 1 point guard with Johnson now gone.
By game’s end, Odukale had turned in his best performance of the year, even more impressive considering his rapidly increased importance to the Panthers.
For starters, Odukale was tasked with playing 38 minutes, far longer than any other game this season.
And with the need for scoring support to supplement Justin Champagnie now a glaring need, Odukale scored a season-high 18 points while checking the boxes good point guards usually do: setting up teammates and limiting mistakes.
“I just know I gotta make better plays; don’t turn over the ball,” the 6’5” freshman said. “Just be the point guard that coach needs. I’m not trying to go out of my role.”
Odukale had a 5:1 turnover ratio on Sunday, and his aggressiveness on offense came as the Panthers made their rally; 15 of his points came after halftime.
“Femi’s played well for us all year, and as the season’s gone on, I think he’s gotten better,” Capel said.
KEYING ON CHAMPAGNIE
Early on, it looked in doubt. But by the end of the night, Champagnie achieved what’s becoming a familiar accomplishment this season: a double-double.
He had to work hard for it, and he may not have been as efficient as he would have liked, but Champagnie finished with 15 points and 12 boards, marking the 12th double-double on the year.
It didn’t come easy, though, and his frustration was occasionally illustrated for all to see. Already Pitt’s leading scorer, Champagnie is now without the cover often provided by Johnson and Toney. N.C. State knew this and frequently hounded Champagnie, as he finished only 4-of-14 from the field and did most of his work from the free-throw line (7-of-8).
Near the end of the first half, Champagnie picked up a technical foul for something said at the free-throw line, and then he picked up a Class B technical in the second half for slapping the backboard while dunking.
“You can’t let your frustrations show and get the best of you,” Capel said. “That’s one of the very first things: you have to play. Justin has to understand that for the rest of his career, this is how it’s going to be. When you become one of those guys that’s one of the better players in your league and in college basketball, teams defend you very, very differently.”
SEASON-BEST FOR BROWN
Tasked with dealing with an N.C. State frontcourt that includes 6-foot-11 Manny Bates and 6-foot-10 DJ Funderburk, Pitt senior center Brown had a tough assignment on his hands. But in this case, the old adage about challenges also serving as opportunities applied to Brown.
Thanks in part to his individual effort, Pitt outrebounded the Wolfpack 45-41, including 20-7 on offensive boards.
Brown, the longest-tenured Panther, turned in the first double-double of his career with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
“For Terrell to have a double-double and battle those guys down there, I thought he did a really good job,” Capel said.
FEW CHANCES REMAINING
Only two games remain in the regular season, and Pitt’s best chance at snapping its losing skid is most likely its next matchup, a home tilt against Wake Forest Tuesday night. The Demon Deacons are the only team in the ACC with a losing streak longer than Pitt’s, and Wake is coming off a 38-point loss against Virginia Tech, its fourth-straight defeat by 18-plus points.
However, Pitt did fall 76-75 in Winston-Salem in January, the first loss in the Panthers’ current skid that has seen them lose eight of nine.