Panthers rattle the Rock in season opening scrimmage


Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Sophomore guard Trey McGowens (2) scored 15 points during Pitt’s 98-47 victory over Slippery Rock.

By Alex Lehmbeck, Staff Writer

Pitt men’s basketball opened the 2019-20 men’s basketball season with an exhibition game against Slippery Rock University on Wednesday, and it went about as well as a preseason tuneup game can go. The Panthers dominated, there were no injuries and the players showed off a few second-half dunks to get the home crowd’s attention.

Despite the 98-47 blowout, Pitt began to hint at what the team will look like next week against Florida State. As expected, the three-headed monster of sophomores — Trey McGowens, Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney — opened, while first-year wing Gerald Drumgoole and graduate transfer Eric Hamilton filled the last two starting spots for the Panthers, meaning junior forward Terell Brown, who started 33 games for the Panthers in his first two seasons, was relegated to the bench.

It might have been an exhibition game, but Pitt wanted to make a statement early. The Panthers made their first five shots to jump out to a 15-4 lead. They penetrated the lane with ease, scoring their first 16 points off layups or free throws and 26 of 51 first half points in the paint.

Pitt first-year Justin Champagnie, who was sidelined for Pitt’s Blue and Gold Madness scrimmage while nursing a knee injury, subbed in during the game’s third minute. Champagnie played 18 minutes, tallying eight points on 3-6 shooting in his Pitt debut. This was another step in his recovery and head coach Jeff Capel acknowledged how essential his return is.

“We’ve been incorporating [Champagnie] full speed since he was clear, and we’ve been trying to ramp some things up with him because we need him,” Capel said.

Although Champagnie’s injury was later revealed to be a sprain, early speculation feared that it was much more serious, possibly an ACL tear.

“Over a month ago, he thought his season was over with,” Capel said. “All of a sudden you think you’re done for the year. It took three weeks to reevaluate him, and then you’re told ‘You’re fine go back and go full speed.’ So there’s some mental hurdles to get over.”

The only obvious flaws in Pitt’s first-half play came from free throw shooting and rebounding. The Rock outrebounded the Panthers by five in the first half, despite missing 14 more shot attempts on the offensive end.

“I thought in the first half they missed a lot of shots and they were just quicker to the ball,” Capel said. “I thought we didn’t do as good of a job of keeping guys out of the paint, so a lot of times our big guys were away from the basket because they were coming over in help situations.”
Hamilton, who didn’t grab any rebounds in the first half, was particularly frustrated with his rough start to the game.

“That’s just ridiculous, for me personally,” Hamilton said. “The key to a lot of games is really just rebounding, and for them to out-rebound us, that didn’t sit well with me.”

Capel said he challenged Hamilton and Brown to address that deficiency in the second half, and they responded. After giving up 11 offensive rebounds in the first half, Slippery Rock only recorded three in the second half. Pitt, meanwhile took over on the other end, corralling 14 offensive boards of their own.

“I tried to come out with a vengeance in the second half,” Hamilton said. “[Trying to] just focus more on rebounding and getting my team extra shots. Securing the boards so that we could just push it and go.”

From there the Panthers were able to unleash their speed in the open court. Improved second-half rebounding led to fastbreak opportunities and easy dunks. Drumgoole, who finished with 13 points, recorded two of his own.

Picking up where they left off last season, Pitt’s strongest performances came from Johnson and McGowens. Johnson led all scorers with 17 points, while McGowens turned in a complete game of 15 points and eight assists in 24 minutes.

“Playing with them guys, it’s a blessing because I look up to them guys, “ Drumgoole said. “Knowing that they’re about to take the next step in their career soon, it’s a pretty good thing. I learn a lot from them on the court, and I learn a lot from them off the court.”

The Panthers now await their first test — a season-opening clash with in-conference foe Florida State next Wednesday at home. And Capel knows that the Seminoles will provide a heightened level of competition.

“We know that they’re going to very talented,” Capel said. “We know that they are going to be big and athletic. They’re going to play really really hard, really defend you, and we knew we wouldn’t get that in exhibitions.”

Tip-off with Florida State is scheduled for next Wednesday at 8 p.m. from the Petersen Events Center and will be broadcast on ESPNU.