PITTSBURGH — In the last week, Pitt lost its best guard and second-best wing when Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney left the program with three games to play.
Johnson and Toney represented the team’s second- and third-leading scorers, they were No. 1 and 2 in assists, second and fourth in the rebounds and third and sixth in shooting percentage and 3-point shooting percentage. Johnson was the team’s best free-throw shooter. Toney was the team’s best defender.
There is no way that anyone could make an argument that the Pitt team is more talented without those two players in the lineup.
And yet, the Panthers got something on Tuesday night that had largely escaped the more-talented version of the team this year: a victory.
Not only that, Pitt thumped Wake Forest, 70-57, the first game for the Panthers with some positive separation after playing a seemingly endless streak of close contests.
In two games without Johnson and Toney, Pitt lost by three at NC State and beat Wake Forest at home by 13. In two games with Johnson and Toney earlier this season, Pitt lost at Wake by one and at home to NC State by one.
That’s an eight-point swing to the positive over two games against the same opponents, and while that’s not a large enough sample to be truly meaningful, it certainly suggests that the now-shorthanded Panthers are playing better overall basketball.
The main differences (other than Wake Forest guard Ismael Massoud only having a good game as opposed to a career-best one the second time around) have been improved defensive play and what freshman forward Will Jeffress called an emphasis on togetherness.
“The response we’ve had is just to stick together,” Jeffress said. “One of the things we’ve really been saying is, ‘We’re all we got. We’re all we need. So just continue fighting.’”
All we got… All we need‼️❤️ pic.twitter.com/zsxeBPGfX5
— William Jeffress (@williamjeffress) March 3, 2021
That mindset seems to be a mature one for a team now largely devoid of upperclassmen. Only two (seniors Nike Sibande and Terrell Brown) suited up on Tuesday. But that doesn’t necessarily surprise head coach Jeff Capel, either.
“I felt it,” Capel said. “I felt it when we had practice Thursday and practice Friday. … I think this team understands how much we need each other. I think they enjoy being around each other. I just think that the adversity, maybe, has bonded us.”
One of the areas where Pitt’s improvement over the last two games has been most dramatic has been on defense.
In Pitt’s first 10 games, no opponent shot better than 50% from the field against the Panthers and the aggregate total was under 40% while Pitt started the season 8-2.
In the following eight games, Pitt’s opponents shot better than 50% half of the time and hit 49.5% of their shots in aggregate. The Panthers lost seven of eight.
But in the last two games, Pitt’s defense has rebounded. The Panthers held NC State to 39.1% shooting on Saturday before stifling Wake Forest to the tune of a 35.8% night on Tuesday.
“After the first game, I thought for that next nine, 10 games, or whatever it was until after Duke, we were all about winning,” Capel said. “We were all about Pitt winning. And then we got just really screwed up after that. And we weren’t the same. You guys saw it. I mean, it wasn’t (the same). … It’s starting to feel like that again, how it felt a little bit earlier in the season. And hopefully, that’s something we can continue to build on.”
PUTTING IN THE WORK
One of the difference makers defensively in this latest stretch has been Jeffress, Pitt’s youngest player, who hasn’t gotten a lot of playing time this season, but has stepped into a bigger role lately.
“I thought Will Jeffress’ defense, his play, everything about it was really good,” Capel said.
Scoring has not come easily to the young Jeffress, who had a career-high eight points against Wake Forest on Tuesday, but his play on the other side of the court has been exceptional. His plus-21 rating was the best on the team against the Demon Deacons, seven better than Abdoul Karim Coulibaly’s plus-14.
ONE FOR THE ROAD
Pitt senior Terrell Brown made a relatively rare start on Tuesday, which is fairly standard practice on Senior Night.
Brown scored four points and grabbed four rebounds, continuing his strong finish to the season. Brown has 22 points and 25 rebounds in his last four games and had 28 points and 23 rebounds in his first 15.
“I’m really happy for Terrell and our five senior managers, for them to go out here at the Pete like this, but especially Terrell,” Capel said. “It was great to have some of the members of the Zoo here. For him to end his last year at home like this, compared to how his last game ended his freshman year, it’s an incredible journey that he’s been on and I’m fortunate to be a part of that journey with him.
Brown is one of two seniors on Pitt’s roster, but he was the only one to participate in the senior ceremony. Guard Nike Sibande chose not to, but stopped short of saying he’s definitely returning to Pitt.
“Just a decision behind closed doors,” Sibande said. “Talking to Coach Capel and just figuring things out. … I feel like I can be a piece to help compete and win here.”