UNC slams Pitt, 85-60, in ACC opener


Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

First-year guard Trey McGowens, pictured here against Niagara, led Pitt with 17 points in its ACC-opening loss to UNC.

By Stephen Thompson, Staff Writer

Pitt men’s basketball opened up ACC play Saturday afternoon at home against the North Carolina Tar Heels. The Panthers battled briefly with the No. 15 team in the country before ultimately falling 85-60.

“We knew with their depth and how fast they play, the pace and they come at you in waves.” Pitt head coach Jeff Capel said. “They can continue to send these high-level athletes into the game. The one thing that I felt they always tried to do is wear you down and I thought that happened to us a little bit today.”

Pitt (10-4) used the raw energy of a sold-out Petersen Events Center to hang with UNC (11-3) in the early going, but an ugly stretch of play in the first half saw the Panthers allow 16 unanswered points, which proved to be an insurmountable deficit.

North Carolina came out hot with a pair of threes, the first coming from first-year guard Coby White and the second from junior guard — and former Pitt standout turned Tar Heel transfer — Cameron Johnson. The pair would terrorize the Panthers from beyond the arc all afternoon, making four and three shots from deep, respectively.

Pitt, on the other hand, struggled to find a rhythm, missing their first three shots before a layup from first-year guard Xavier Johnson put the Panthers on the board roughly two minutes into the contest. Junior center Kene Chukwuka then took a charge and followed it up with two free throws to pull Pitt within two.

After a slow start, the Panthers retook control of the game with a 6-0 burst, capitalized by an Xavier Johnson steal and dunk to pull things even at eight heading into the first media timeout.

Johnson’s dunk electrified the hometown fans at the Pete, but the seasoned Tarheel veterans were unfazed. UNC came out of the media timeout and scored on back-to-back possessions by way of two free throws from senior forward Luke Maye and a layup from sophomore forward Garrison Brooks.

The Panthers once again responded with four hard-earned points — Xavier Johnson made two free throws and after a defensive stop, junior forward Malik Ellison grabbed an offensive rebound off of his own miss and scored to tie the game for a second time at 12 a piece.

But after making the score 15-14 with 11:58 left in the half, it was all downhill from there for the Panthers. Johnson hit a long 3-pointer to give UNC a lead that they would not relinquish. Pitt entered an offensive funk, going a full six-and-a-half minutes without scoring. By the time first-year guard Trey McGowens knocked down a pair of free throws to score Pitt’s next points, UNC led by a decisive 31-16 margin.

Pitt’s deficit only continued to grow as the turnovers, missed 3-pointers and UNC offensive rebounds began to pile up. The Tar Heels’ size, length and athleticism put the undersized Panthers at a noticeable disadvantage — in the first half, UNC made 15 of their 35 field goal attempts, while Pitt converted on just six of 29.

With the Tar Heels leading by 20 and 39 seconds remaining in the first half, the Panthers began to move the ball around the perimeter in an attempt to kill time and hold for last shot. However, an ill-advised 3-pointer from senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame yielded a miss and a long rebound, which was controlled by UNC first-year guard Leaky Black and quickly outletted to White, who scored a wide open layup just before the buzzer sounded to go up 45-23.

The second half opened with a beautiful feed from Maye to White for a layup and the Tar Heels continued to use outstanding execution and increased intensity on the offensive end to expand their large halftime lead and put the Panthers away.

Despite some sharper play on offense in the second half, Pitt was unable to overcome the physicality and size that UNC rolled out. The UNC lead never dipped below 22 and grew to as large as 33 with 4:32 remaining in the game, which prompted most of the remaining Panther fans to head for the exits.

The Tar Heels got another outstanding performance from Cameron Johnson, who was making a return not only to the school where his college career began, but his hometown as well. From the flyers handed out by students urging fans to give Johnson “the silent treatment” whenever he got the ball, to the chorus of boos that rained down during his pregame introduction, Johnson received a less than warm welcome from the Pitt faithful.

Johnson, however, was not intimidated by the hostility, as his 15 points on 50 percent shooting, nine rebounds and four assists demonstrated. UNC head coach Roy Williams praised Johnson for how he handled the negativity.

“I think he handled it really well, and I noticed there was a little booing, but people like the kid,” Williams said. “He’s a good guy… I didn’t worry about him.”  

Other notable performances for UNC included Coby White, who led all scorers with 22 points, and Luke Maye, who tallied a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

For the Panthers, McGowens was the leading scorer with 17 points, while also adding four rebounds. Xavier Johnson helped out with 14 points, three rebounds and two assists, but also committed a game-high five times.

The effort was there for the young Panthers, but the result proved they still have a long way to go before they can compete with the kind of teams that exist along with UNC in top tier of college basketball powers. Capel reiterated how his team is still a work in progress and that the older his core gets, the better they will perform against the kind of talent they faced in UNC.

“You have to gain experience in these situations,” Capel said, “and continue to teach. Continue to work and continue to believe in them.”

The Panthers will look to gain further conference experience in their next game, when they face Louisville at home Wednesday at 8 p.m.