Pitt remains undefeated with 84-75 win over Troy


Sarah Cutshall | Senior Staff Photographer

Senior guard and forward Jared Wilson-Frame, pictured here against Troy, led the Panthers with 19 points in a loss to Syracuse.

By Trent Leonard and Stephen Thompson

For the second straight game, senior forward Jared Wilson-Frame came off the bench and delivered a lights-out shooting performance to lead the Pitt men’s basketball team to victory, making six of 10 3-pointers as the Panthers toppled Troy 84-75 at home Monday night.

“I’m just comfortable,” Wilson-Frame said. “Playing in this system, getting in the right type of shape and playing with these guys, it’s fun out there … our chemistry — that’s what it speaks to, mostly.”

Wilson-Frame led Pitt (3-0) in scoring with 24 points on the evening, while first-year guard Xavier Johnson stuffed the stat sheet by tallying a team-high seven rebounds and nine assists, as well as 15 points. Johnson was just one assist away from notching his second straight double-double.

“These are basically what I averaged in high school,” Johnson said of his stats. “So I’m just still playing the game.”

Pitt played the smothering defense that has become a staple of the Panther team so far, holding the Trojans (1-2) to just 35-percent shooting from the field. The Panthers shot better than that from the 3-point line alone, making 37 percent of shots from deep and 50 percent of their total field goals. Despite the shooting woes, Troy kept the game close by getting to the charity stripe and converting at a high rate, knocking down 25 of 28 free throws.

Unlike Pitt’s first two opponents, Troy brought a decent resumé to the table, with an NCAA Tournament appearance as a 15-seed in 2017. The Trojans also lost a close contest to St. Louis — another perennial tournament team — in their previous game.

But in their biggest test of the young season, the Panthers never backed down. For all Troy did to keep things close, Pitt never trailed a second in the game and seemed to take control every time the Trojans threatened.

The Panthers — as they have all season — relied on Johnson to get the team started early on. Johnson found junior forward Kene Chukwuka cutting to the hoop for the team’s first basket of the game, and his team-leading 17th assist of the season. On the Trojans’ ensuing possession, Johnson drew a charge to keep the momentum in favor of Pitt.

Three minutes later, Johnson again connected with Chukwuka for a layup to make the score 9-4 Panthers. But Troy refused to lay down, knocking down a three and a layup to tie the score up at 9.

Wilson-Frame entered the game with 17 minutes left in the first half and provided instant offense, knocking down Pitt’s first 3-pointer of the game and slashing to the hoop for a contested layup to take the lead back, 14-12. Wilson-Frame acted as a spark plug off the bench in Pitt’s previous game against VMI as well, leading the team with 20 points.

With the game tied at 14, the Panthers finally created some separation with a 7-0 run that saw three different Panthers — Wilson-Frame, Chukwuka and first-year guard Trey McGowens — contribute points.

6-foot-10-inch center Terrell Brown came off the bench with just seven minutes left in the half and promptly made his presence known, posting up in the paint and converting on a soft floater. Next time down the court, Brown recorded Pitt’s first blocked shot of the game, then got fouled and made both free throws to give Pitt its first double-digit lead at 30-19.

But the Panthers would cool in the waning minutes of the half, allowing the Trojans to go on an 11-4 run to close within four points. The offense looked discombobulated, and after back-to-back ugly misses from Wilson-Frame and Johnson, head coach Jeff Capel stepped onto the court and loudly pleaded “What are we doing?” to his team. He called a timeout to regroup soon after.

The Panthers buckled down in the final minute of the half and Johnson scored four consecutive points to give Pitt a 40-35 advantage heading into the halftime locker room.

Pitt opened the second half with a 7-2 run to give them some breathing room, widening the lead back to double digits.

From there, the two teams would go on a back-and-forth tear of offensive awesomeness — or defensive deficiency, depending on your perspective. The Panthers made six straight shots, including three straight 3-pointers from Wilson-Frame, while the Trojans made five straight shots of their own. By the time someone finally missed a basket to end the onslaught, Pitt led 63-50 with 13:19 remaining.

The Trojans responded with a 7-2 of their own run to cut the lead back to single digits with 9:54 left to play. But Wilson-Frame hit another back-breaking three — his sixth and final of the game — to give the Panthers an 11-point lead moments later.

The Panthers would more or less maintain that lead down the stretch, leading by as much as 12 and as little as seven, but never wavering in their control over the game. They made their final six free throws of the game and continued to limit Troy’s shooting opportunities.

With Pitt leading by nine and three minutes remaining, the Panthers missed five straight shots, but recovered the offensive rebound each time, eating up clock until there was only 1:44 left. That allowed them to comfortably run the clock out and notch their third straight victory, 84-75.

Troy senior forward Jordon Varnado led all players with 22 points and 11 rebounds. The Panthers struggled to contain the 6-foot-6-inch, 235-pound Varnado all evening, as well as senior forward Alex Hicks, who added 16 points and six rebounds. However, most of those points came from the free-throw line, as Pitt limited the duo to just 11 of 27 shooting from the field.

Afterwards, Capel pointed out that he had previous experience coaching against Troy’s high-quality big men.

“I knew this team was good. Those two post guys, I coached against them two years ago in the NCAA Tournament,” Capel said. “And I thought our guys did a really good job, especially our post guys.”

Next up, the undefeated Panthers will take on Central Arkansas Thursday at home, with tip-off set for 7 p.m.