Sarah Cutshall | Senior Staff Photographer
Pitt men’s basketball is off to its best start in the three years after beating North Alabama 71-66 at the Petersen Events Center Saturday afternoon to improve to 5-0 in the young season. Head coach Jeff Capel relied on clutch performances down the stretch from first-year guard Xavier Johnson to overcome sloppy offensive play and secure the victory.
Despite some impressive individual performances, Pitt shot an abysmal 17 percent from beyond the arc. But the Panthers shot 74 percent on 42 attempts from the free throw line — compared to only 13 for UNA — to cover their deficiencies from the floor.
Pitt’s opportunistic defense, which has become a calling card so far during the young season, forced 15 turnovers and turned those turnovers into 15 points on the other end, which was important for the struggling Panther offense.
Junior forward Malik Ellison said he thought the early tip-off played into Pitt’s weak offensive showing. All of Pitt’s games up until Saturday afternoon had tipped off at 7 p.m.
“We got a lot of new guys playing this year,” Ellison said, “so they’re not really used to the 12 p.m. game. So it was good for us to come out here to get the win and get used to the 12 p.m. because we got another one next week… It was good that we got to get it out of the way now.”
Ellison opened the game with a bang, slamming home a dunk off an assist from Johnson to open the day’s scoring, but first-year guard Jamari Blackmon answered with the first of UNA’s 10 made threes.
Senior forward Jared Wilson-Frame came off of the bench for the fourth straight game and, like he has all season, immediately made an impact. He drilled a wide-open 3-pointer and contributed a massive block on defense.
Poor offensive rebounding and interior defense by the Panthers allowed UNA to quickly close what was a growing deficit. UNA made back-to-back threes from Blackmon and junior guard Kendarius Smith to tie the game at 14 with less than nine minutes to go in the first.
Junior forward Kene Chukwuka’s layup put the Panthers back up top, 16-14, before UNA took a timeout. Following the timeout, Blackmon hit another 3-pointer to give the Lions a 17-16 lead with just under seven minutes left in the first half.
A pair of free throws from first-year guard Au’Diese Toney extended the Panther lead to six, but the back-and-forth affair continued. A 3-pointer from UNA cut the lead to one possession and shortly after the Lions took a 27-26 lead with 3:11 left to play in the first half after hitting three straight field goals.
First-year guard Trey McGowens hit one of two free throws and a transition layup by Wilson-Frame brought the score back even, but junior guard Cameron Diggs’ jumper gave the Lions the lead with 15.6 seconds remaining in the half. Wilson-Frame chucked up a desperation three as time ran down and missed, but to add insult to injury, committed a foul on the rebound and Christian Agnew hit two free throws to extend the Lion lead to four as both teams head for the locker rooms at halftime.
Pitt was able to take care of the ball, turning it over only five times, but they shot an abysmal 17 percent from beyond the arc. The Lions on the other hand, had much better luck. They shot 35 percent from three, which powered their offense throughout the game.
Pitt came out with purpose in the second half, attacking the basket and drawing fouls on back-to-back possessions. Chukwuka was the first beneficiary, followed by Johnson who made both made two free throws. Johnson’s tied the game and on the ensuing possession, a Toney layup in transition gave Pitt a 35-33 lead and UNA was forced to call timeout with less than two minutes into the half following the 6-0 run by the Panthers.
The Panthers began to find their rhythm coming out of the timeout, forcing turnovers and finding opportunities to score in transition. With less than five minutes remaining, Pitt had already visited the free throw line seven times and the Panthers turned a four-point halftime deficit into a six-point lead with 14:54 remaining.
The Lions would not go away easily, however. Back-to-back layups, followed by an and-one jumper from first-year forward Emanuel Littles cut it to one possession Panther lead. The Lions would then briefly tie the game, but the Panthers got out in transition quickly and Ellison put Pitt back on top with an acrobatic layup.
On Pitt’s next possession, Toney converted a tough and-one layup, but would miss the free throw. With Pitt up by four, Ellison finished strong on a layup through contact and Toney took a charge on the defensive end.
The Panthers were up 53-47 with 8:36 remaining, but couldn’t put pull away. With shooting running cold, a large free-throw discrepancy helped the Panthers maintain a slim margin. A fancy crossover and finish from Johnson gave Pitt its largest lead of the game at eight, but two straight UNA 3-pointers cut the lead back to one possession.
At the final media timeout, Pitt led by three and for the first time in his tenure at Pitt, coach Capel had to find a way to win in crunch time. Two made free throws by UNA brought the lions within one point, but a free throw and layup from Johnson extended the lead to four with 2:36 remaining.
But the Lions refused to fold. A clutch 3-point shot from Smith cut the lead to one, and after two free throws from Toney gave Pitt a 3 point lead, UNA had the ball with 14 seconds left, but Wilson-Frame blocked the potential game-tying shot with seven seconds left. Johnson hit two free throws with 1.4 seconds remaining to ice the game for Pitt.
Coach Capel and Ellison, despite their disappointment with the way the team played, complimented their moxie.
“I’m really proud of our team for finding a way to win when we weren’t at our best because of North Alabama. I thought They played really really hard and they put a lot of pressure on us… That’s the first time we faced pressure like that,” Capel said.
“At least it showed that we’re all tough and that we can get through adversity,” Ellison said, “because we got down in the first half and at halftime we were down, so for us to come out in the second half and pull it all together… we got the victory so that’s all that matters.”
Johnson took over in the second half, scoring 19 of his 23 points in the final period and seven of the team’s last nine down the stretch to close out the victory. Johnson also chipped in four rebounds and three assists to continue the outstanding start to his college career. Ellison scored 15 and Toney collected 12 points to go along with eight rebounds.
For UNA, Smith led the way with 19 points on 5-9 shooting from three to go along with three rebounds, three blocks and a steal. Diggs scored 12 and was a perfect 6-6 from the field, while Blackmon added 13 points and seven assists.
The undefeated Panthers will face their toughest test of the young season when they take on the St. Louis University Billikens, who were picked to win the Atlantic 10 conference, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Wednesday. Tip-off is at noon.