GREENSBORO, N.C. – Femi Odukale drove toward the basket as the painted area was filled with Miami players. The Pitt freshman made it through cleanly, then laid off a nifty left-handed pass to Justin Champagnie, who rose up with both of his hands wrapped around the ball to throw down a ferocious dunk.
It was an impressive display of basketball, with the freshman revealing his play-making abilities and Champagnie showing off his raw athleticism and strength. But Pitt was still trailing the Hurricanes by five points and just 46 ticks remained on the clock.
Miami’s Anthony Walker quickly responded with a dunk of his own on the other end. The Panthers continued to fight. In the end, their fight wasn’t enough.
Although Pitt’s men’s basketball season flamed out and came to a disappointing end on the floor of the historic Greensboro Coliseum by losing 79-73 to 13th-seeded Miami in the first round of the 2021 ACC Tournament on Tuesday, the Panthers never folded. They didn’t roll over. They didn’t give up.
That’s what Jeff Capel, Pitt’s third-year head coach, was appreciative of after the game.
“I’m really proud of my team,” Capel said. “This has been an incredibly difficult year on so many different levels. … You know, it ends abruptly. It’s cruel when it ends, and it happened to end for us today.
“I’m really, really grateful to my team and really, really proud of them for the effort that we had all year.”
A SEASON UNLIKE ANY OTHER
Indeed, the Panthers – and the rest of the NCAA’s winter athletes – have played through this season as the pandemic raged on. The coronavirus altered college basketball’s schedule and made the lives of its players and coaches more difficult. Still, the sport played on. For that, Capel was thankful.
“I am hopeful that everyone that’s involved – people in TV, people in media – everyone thanks these kids, thanks these student-athletes for allowing us to be able to work this year and thanks them for their commitment, for their perseverance, for their discipline, all of the things to enable us to have a season,” Capel said. “I’m really, really thankful to all the workers, the doctors, the trainers, everyone that made it possible for us, that worked tirelessly throughout the year.”
Pitt had seven games postponed this season and just four of them were rescheduled. On top of the impacts from COVID-19, Pitt saw two of its starters enter the transfer portal in the middle of February.
“It’s been a year unlike any that I’ve ever experienced, with the pandemic, and then all the things that we’ve gone through as a program,” Capel said.
FREE BUT NOT EASY
Despite everything that has happened to Pitt, the Panthers were still in a position to win Tuesday. Instead, they fell to 6-8 all-time in ACC Tournament play and 2-3 under Capel.
What doomed Pitt was its free throw shooting. The Panthers went 5 of 14 from the charity stripe, missing nine shots. They lost by six points. You do the math.
Miami, meanwhile, shot 22 of 28 from the free throw line. The Canes also benefited from Pitt not playing its best game defensively, as Miami dished out 17 assists and shot 43.3% from the floor. Miami only had six turnovers while Pitt coughed up possession 14 times.
Pitt gave its best effort, yes, but the execution wasn’t there against Miami.
“Just had an off day. It happens,” Capel said. “It’s unfortunate that it happened today, but it just happens.”
Isaiah Wong led the Canes with 20 points, four assists and two boards. Anthony Walker added 14 points, four assists and nine rebounds.
“They played better than us this afternoon. They were able to score more, and we didn’t do a great job of stopping them,” Capel said. “Wong is as good of a scorer as we have in our league, and he creates so many things for the other guys, as well.”
BEST YET FOR ODUKALE
For Pitt, the lead man on the stat sheet was freshman Femi Okudale, who has made the most of his newfound opportunities since Pitt saw Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney leave the program late in February. Okudale had his best game of his collegiate career on Tuesday, dropping a season-high 28 points in addition to six rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal.
“Nothing really felt different. I’m just trying to win; trying to find a win so we can keep playing. And today I just said I would do anything, and I’m going to play my game,” Odukale said. “Whatever I felt like was a good shot, I was going to shoot it. Whatever I felt like was a good play, I’m going to do.”
Over his last four games this season, Odukale averaged 15 points, 3.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds per-game.
The game was also a strong one for Nike Sibande, who racked up 24 points, six rebounds and four assists. It was the highest scoring game the transfer from Miami (Ohio) has had in a Pitt uniform.
“They were able to make some shots,” Capel said of Sibande and Odukale. “Femi was able to create some things. So really pleased for them individually. But we have a lot of work to do. They have a lot of work to do, just like all of us.”
Only four Pitt players scored in the game. Ithiel Horton had 10 points, four rebounds and three assists off the bench, and star forward Justin Champagnie had 11 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR CHAMPAGNIE?
While Odukale and Sibande lit up the scoreboard, all eyes were on Champagnie, Pitt’s lone All-ACC talent. And Champagnie struggled, making just 5-of-20 shots, 1-of-8 from three-point range, and turning the ball over twice.
Tuesday might’ve been the 6-foot-6 Brooklyn, New York native’s last game in a Pitt uniform. While he’s just a sophomore, Champagnie is seen a legit NBA prospect. An early February projection from Bleacher Report had Champagnie going No. 31 overall, the first pick of the second round.
It’s unclear what Champagnie will decide, if he’ll opt for a career in the pros or another season at Pitt, but Capel has spoken with his parents about his options and will try to guide him toward the right decision.
“The biggest thing is that, Justin and I and his family have to be on the same page. Because there will be a lot of people trying to divide us. And what I mean by that is, there will be people saying that I’m going to try to make him come back to school for me,” Capel said. “My thing is that, Justin doesn’t owe me anything. Like, he needs to do what’s best for him.
“Because of my connections, because of people that I know that are in the NBA, I will be able to get him accurate information, not information that you see on a draft website or a mock draft or any of those things. I know how those things work. I’ve had a lot of experience with them, and I know those things, the majority of the time, are not accurate.
“I will be able to gather accurate information for him. I will share that with him in complete honesty… I’ve never been a guy that’s said to a kid, you should stay or you should go. That’s not my decision. My job is to get the information.
“Now, if they ask me my opinion, I’ll give them my opinion. I’m not just going to volunteer my opinion because that’s between a kid and his family.”
It’s unclear if Champagnie is leaning one way or the other. He was not made available to media after the game.
If the ACC Tournament loss to Miami was Champagnie’s final game, he has certainly left his mark at Pitt in a short amount of time. The sophomore is the only player in a Power 5 conference averaging a double-double this season at 18.7 points and 11.5 rebounds per-game. He was second in the ACC in scoring and first in rebounding, the first Pitt player to lead the ACC in boards since the Panthers joined the conference in 2013. He became the first Pitt player to earn All-ACC First Team accolades, and he’s the first since DeJuan Blair in 2009 to earn all-conference honors as a sophomore.
With or without Champagnie, Capel is confident about the direction his team is heading in.
“I’m excited about our future. I think we have some really good pieces,” Capel said. “I’m very hopeful that we have a spring and summer where we can work with the guys and help them get better.”