Mountaineers maul Pitt in Backyard Brawl, 69-59


Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

First-year guard Xavier Johnson, pictured here against WVU, was held to single-digit points for the second straight game versus Louisville.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

Facing off against a team known for its suffocating defense, the young Panthers’ inexperience was on full display in a 69-59 loss to West Virginia Saturday afternoon in the 186th edition of the Backyard Brawl.

Whether it was the hostile Morgantown environment, the trademark under-your-skin defense from head coach Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers, or a standout performance from one of the nation’s premier shot-blockers, Pitt turned the ball over a season-high 24 times and committed a season-high 26 fouls while shooting a season-low 31 percent from the field.

Playing poorly in those departments of the game will never earn you the win, but to their credit, the upstart Panthers fought diligently, forcing 26 West Virginia turnovers which they turned into 24 points on the offensive end. They also kept pace with the Mountaineers at the free throw line, making 19 of 23 attempts.

WVU junior forward Sagaba Konate earned the game’s unofficial MVP award, scoring 16 points and leading both teams with nine rebounds and an incredible seven blocks, becoming the school’s all-time leader in that category.

It was a purely two-man show for Pitt, with Johnson scoring 21, Mcgowens scoring 18 and no other Panther contributing more than six points. Johnson tied for the team lead with six rebounds and two assists, but also coughed up a game-high eight turnovers.

The Mountaineers gained the upper hand early on, hopping out to a 5-0 lead after a layup from senior forward Esa Ahmad and a 3-pointer from junior guard James Bolden. West Virginia’s patented pressure defense was also on display, as the team forced three Pitt turnovers in the first three minutes.

As he has all season, talented first-year point guard Xavier Johnson served as the offensive spark plug for Pitt. He brought the Panthers back into the game by scoring their first seven points — an emphatic dunk, a 3-pointer and a contested floater — to tie the game five minutes in.

This Backyard Brawl quickly lived up to its billing as a rivalry game, with the teams getting chippy with one another and earning double technicals at the 14:33 mark. Two minutes later, WVU sophomore forward Andrew Gordon stood over Pitt junior Kene Chukwuka as he lay on the ground, resulting in technical fouls for each team once again.

The home crowd in Morgantown greeted these scuffles with a chorus of “Eat [expletive] Pitt!” chants.

After notching a 15-13 advantage with 8:31 to go in the half, Pitt’s offense took a dive bomb. The Panthers couldn’t find the bottom of the net — and what’s more, they could hardly get shots off, turning the ball over on six straight possessions over the next four minutes. WVU used those turnovers to mount a 9-0 run and take a 24-15 lead.

Johnson, who had been relegated to the bench due to foul trouble, re-entered the game with five minutes left in the half in an effort to get the Panthers back on track. As if on cue, he drew a foul on a strong take to the rim, earning a trip to the free throw line and sinking both attempts to stop the Mountaineer run.

WVU gained its largest lead of the game to that point, 32-21, on a pair of free throws from Bolden. Then, on the other end, Konate — the best shot-blocker in the nation last year — made his presence known with an authoritative rejection of Pitt junior Malik Ellison. The Mountaineers translated that into two more points to go up 13.

Pitt senior forward Jared Wilson-Frame finally quieted the crowd with a corner three — the Panthers’ first made field goal since 10-minute mark. First-year guard Trey Mcgowens drilled a three from the same spot on Pitt’s next possession to draw back within single digits.

After one last turnover from Johnson, the Mountaineers went into halftime with a 39-27 lead.

It was a markedly ugly first half for the Panthers. They turned the ball over a whopping 14 times — more than in four entire games this season — and committed 14 fouls. West Virginia used those miscues to its advantage, making 10 of 11 free throws and scoring 15 points off those takeaways.

The sloppy play picked back up in the second half, with both teams committing five combined fouls in the opening two minutes.

Konate continued to terrorize the Panthers on defense. On a breakaway run from Johnson, Konate’s mere chase-down presence made him try a behind the back pass instead of attempting the open dunk, resulting in a turnover. 30 seconds later, Johnson chose to take it to the basket, where Konate met him with a block — putting himself just four blocks away from WVU’s all-time record.

Meanwhile, the Mountaineers steadily increased upon their 12-point halftime lead. They forced turnover No. 18 at the 15:41 mark — already tying Pitt’s record on the season — and went up 48-31 on an Ahmad layup.

No one on the Panthers was immune to the turnover bug. Old or young, point guard or center, “Press Virginia” smothered them alike. A charge on first-year guard Au’Diese Toney and a double-dribble on Wilson-Frame brought Pitt’s turnover total to 20 with 13:48 remaining.

Pitt also struggled to shoot the ball, going an abysmal 22 percent on 2-9 shooting to start the second half. All these frustrations boiled over when Mcgowens drove to the hoop and was met aggressively by a WVU defender. No foul was called, and Capel — who was apparently fed up with the refs’ lack of respect for his young players — adamantly pleaded his case to the officials.

It doesn’t take an expert lip-reader to understand the message being conveyed there.

He was rewarded with a technical foul, but he may have gotten his point across. The referees finally began to blow their whistles on Pitt’s drives, resulting in an and-one for Mcgowens and an and-one for Johnson on consecutive possessions, bringing the Panthers within 11 points.

Mcgowens, streaking down the right sideline, found himself with a breakaway chance to challenge Konate, streaking down the other side of the court, at the rim. In a battle of wills, he leapt up for the dunk attempt — but Konate made him pay, pinning the shot off the backboard for his fifth block off the game, one shy of the school record.

With eight minutes left, Mcgowens took advantage of a Konate trip to the bench, making a layup to bring Pitt back within 10, 56-46. Ellison closed the gap further with a fast-break lay-in of his own, bringing the Panthers within single digits with 7:27 left.

The Panthers would then go ice-cold from the field, missing their next six field goal attempts during a four-minute scoring drought. Toney finally got Pitt back on track with an and-one, but by that point WVU had extended its lead back to 12 points.

Pitt refused to go away in the closing minutes of the contest, getting down 14 points but closing back within eight points with two minutes left thanks to a strong free-throw shooting effort. Toney, Chukwuka and Mcgowens all earned trips to the charity stripe and converted to keep the Panthers in the game.

However, the deficit was just too great to overcome. Despite Pitt’s best efforts, the Mountaineers were able to keep them scoreless for the remainder of the game, running the clock out on a 69-59 victory.

With the win, the Mountaineers improved their mark in the all-time series to 98-88. Pitt hasn’t played any opponent more often throughout program history.

The loss drops the Panthers’ record to 7-3 while improving WVU’s record to 6-3. Next on the agenda, Pitt returns home to play Maryland Eastern Shore, Dec. 15 at 2 p.m.

Leave a comment.