Panther Spotlight: Xavier Johnson, Danielle Garven, Nika Markovic

First-year+guard+Xavier+Johnson%2C+pictured+here+against+VMI%2C+extended+his+double-digit+scoring+streak+to+eight+games+in+a+74-53+victory+over+Duquesne.
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Panther Spotlight: Xavier Johnson, Danielle Garven, Nika Markovic

First-year guard Xavier Johnson, pictured here against VMI, extended his double-digit scoring streak to eight games in a 74-53 victory over Duquesne.

First-year guard Xavier Johnson, pictured here against VMI, extended his double-digit scoring streak to eight games in a 74-53 victory over Duquesne.

Bader Abdulmajeed | Staff Photographer

First-year guard Xavier Johnson, pictured here against VMI, extended his double-digit scoring streak to eight games in a 74-53 victory over Duquesne.

Bader Abdulmajeed | Staff Photographer

Bader Abdulmajeed | Staff Photographer

First-year guard Xavier Johnson, pictured here against VMI, extended his double-digit scoring streak to eight games in a 74-53 victory over Duquesne.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

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Pitt sports teams balled out over Thanksgiving break, as the volleyball team wrapped up its season with an authoritative win while the men’s and women’s basketball teams both notched victories of their own. These are the star athletes who helped their teams out the most — and will be players to watch as their respective seasons progress.

Xavier Johnson, men’s basketball

This offseason, new men’s basketball head coach Jeff Capel made headlines when he snagged two four-star recruits in Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney, with McGowens being the team’s first top-100 overall recruit since 2013.

Through the first six games of the season, however, it’s been a three-star recruit — first-year point guard Xavier Johnson — who has impressed the most.

Pitt is now 6-0 for the first time since 2013, and Johnson is a big reason why. The explosive guard leads the Panthers with 16.7 points and 5.5 assists per game. He routinely assumes the role of creator on offense, using his strong 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame and quick first step to beat defenders off the dribble and either score or kick the ball out to open shooters. Nicknamed “Energizer Bunny” by his teammates, Johnson also applies relentless on-ball pressure to opposing point guards — his six steals are tied for the team lead.

Johnson also showed off some clutch ability in the Panthers’ last game, a 75-73 nail-biting win over St. Louis. The Billikens — a perennial tournament team that was picked to win its conference — marked Pitt’s toughest opponent so far. But in his first game playing away from the Petersen Events Center, Johnson shone down the stretch, scoring or assisting on nine of the Panthers’ final 12 points, including the go-ahead putback layup with 1:19 remaining.

Many people didn’t see this coming from a recruit ranked 232nd nationally before the season. But Capel — a gifted recruiter with a track record of success at Oklahoma and Duke — saw the potential during Johnson’s high school career, where he competed in one of the nation’s toughest AAU basketball circuits, Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball league and in a highly competitive school conference, the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference.

“He has a worker’s mentality,” Capel said after Johnson notched 15 points, seven rebounds and nine assists in an 84-75 win over Troy. “He’s been taught from his AAU program … his high school program, that guy coaches hard and he teaches those guys. From that standpoint, he is advanced because he has been coached hard.”

It looks like Capel somehow saw what most recruiting sites failed to see, and Johnson gives Pitt a truly exciting talent to watch for the first time in years.

Danielle Garven, women’s basketball

After a slow start to the year, senior forward Danielle Garven is finally emerging as the leader she was expected to be entering the season.

Garven didn’t lead the Panthers in scoring in any of the team’s first five games. She seemed to struggle with her shot, scoring no points in one game and just four points in two others.

Then, redshirt senior point guard and leading scorer Aysia Bugg went down with an injury against Georgetown, causing her to miss the past three games. Garven has stepped up in a big way during that time, leading the team in scoring each game. She scored 15 points against Wisconsin, 12 against Arkansas and 17 against Tennessee State, causing her scoring average to leap from 7.2 to 10.0.

What’s even better than her personal statlines is the fact that Garven is helping the team win. After alternating between wins and losses all season, the Panthers won back-to-back games for the first time this season with Garven leading the way, beating Arkansas 61-54 and Tennessee State 78-56.

The Panthers are struggling as a whole, with tough losses to Central Florida and Youngstown State early in the season. But with Garven back on track and two wins in the past three games, it looks like the team’s worst days are behind them.

Nika Markovic, volleyball

The volleyball team finished up its regular season Nov. 21 with a 3-0 victory over Georgia Tech, giving the 29-1 Panthers their highest winning percentage (0.967) in program history as well as their most wins since 1990.

Like she has all season, junior right side Nika Markovic led the team’s offensive attack with 12 kills, adding in seven digs and two blocks for good measure. In fact, Markovic led the Panthers in kills in each of their final three games, including a season-high 19 in a close win over Miami.

Markovic has been one of Pitt’s most steady contributors throughout the Panthers’ dominant season, leading the team with 4.28 points per set and ranking second with 3.54 kills per set.

The Panthers’ ACC title gives them an automatic bid to the 2018 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Tournament, earning a No. 12 seed overall. Last year, Markovic led the team with 17 kills in an opening-round victory over VCU, before Pitt fell to Penn State in the next round for the second straight year. If the Panthers hope to finally topple the Nittany Lions this time around, it will take another key performance from her.

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