Panthers survive Seminoles, 63-61, in season debut


Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Florida State defenders get physical with Justin Champagnie (11) as he tries to shoot.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton faced the postgame press in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night with a smile.

“I was hoping you guys had left already,” Hamilton said.

He was fresh off of an ugly season-opening loss. His Seminoles (0-1 overall, 0-1 ACC) shot a lowly 39% from the field, including 30% from 3-point range, and committed 27 personal fouls in a fourth-straight loss at the Petersen Events Center, 63-61 to Jeff Capel and the Pitt Panthers (1-0 overall, 1-0 ACC).

But it wasn’t ugly just for the Seminoles.

Despite a renovated home arena, fresh uniforms and a reloaded roster, the “new look” Panthers still resembled last year’s team throughout the first half on Wednesday night. Poor shooting and wild turnovers plagued the offensive end, while Pitt’s stout defense managed to keep the score tight. Both teams turned the ball over nine times apiece and and shot a combined 15-54 from the field, covering for each other’s scoring deficiencies in the opening half.

It was a shock for many watching, but Capel was unsurprised and claimed that even the nation’s elite can be subject to opening night jitters.

“If you watched the games in the Champions Classic yesterday, both of those games were ugly,” Capel said. “It’s what to be expected, in my opinion, this time of year when you have a lot of new faces.”

Capel added that his team isn’t unusual when compared to Florida State or any of its ACC counterparts. There was massive turnover and the league’s young teams are still learning as they go.

After scraping by with free throws to keep the deficit slim, Pitt turned defense into offense. The Panthers went on a 13-2 run to take a four-point lead with 1:24 remaining in the first half, highlighted by a fancy up-and-under and-one from graduate transfer Eric Hamilton and a trio of 3-pointers from sophomore guard Xavier Johnson and junior guard Ryan Murphy.

For much of the first half, Johnson and fellow sophomore guard Trey McGowens were the focal point of Florida State’s defense. Driving lanes were clogged and the two dynamic, slashing guards struggled to find open looks at the rim.

The duo combined to shoot 2-9 from the field in the first half while the Seminoles collected five blocks.

But McGowens and Johnson finally shifted their focus during Pitt’s 13-2 half-closing run. Instead of attack, attack, attack, they facilitated and rebounded, opening up scoring opportunities for their teammates.

Trey McGowens celebrates during Pitt’s 63-61 win over Florida State.

That run gave Pitt its largest lead of the game at 25-21 — but it was short-lived. Florida State redshirt sophomore forward RaiQuan Gray turned an offensive rebound in two points, then senior guard Trent Forrest stripped the ball from Murphy and nailed a jumper on the other end to tie the game at 25.

As the second half began, it seemed as though the game finally did as well. The Seminoles came out of the halftime locker room on fire, blitzing the Panthers for a 7-1 burst to open up a six-point lead.

But then came junior forward Terrell Brown for Pitt.

Brown checked in with just under 15 minutes remaining in the second half and Florida State leading by nine. He quickly found an easy dunk thanks to fine interior passing from sophomore forward Au’Diese Toney, then again scored easily after first-year forward Justin Champagnie found him underneath the basket.

Capel had high praise for Brown, saying he played a complete game.

“I thought Terrell [Brown] was terrific,” Capel said. “I thought it was one of the best games he’s played since I got here. He finished around the rim, he played with energy and passion, he was talking, you could hear him, and he played with confidence … I thought some of the things he did defensively were really good too.”

And because Brown’s play provided the spark, a fire followed. Champagnie and Johnson hit consecutive 3-pointers to give Pitt its first lead of the second half at 41-40 with just over 10 minutes left to play.

The final minutes were a dogfight, with neither team gaining more than a one-possession edge.

Head coach Jeff Capel (far right) and his coaching staff frantically signal to Pitt’s players during Wednesday night’s action.

Forrest knotted the score at 56 with 2:30 remaining, but it was Brown to the rescue again. He converted an old-fashioned 3-point play to give Pitt a lead at 2:00 that it would not relinquish. The Panthers made seven of their final nine free throws to close out the Seminoles.

The Panthers shot a woeful 31% from the free throw line in last week’s exhibition against Slippery Rock. In response, Pitt’s coaching staff hammered the importance of free throws into their players’ heads over the past week.

“Free throws win you games,” Murphy said. “Those are big-time plays. One step in the right direction.”

It takes a special kind of chemistry and trust to overcome the ugly play that Capel mentioned, a trust which the Panthers developed over the summer during their trip to Italy and is paying dividends in games now.

“It all started in Italy,” Brown said. “After that we went from being a group to being a team … You just get comfortable and it translates onto the court.”

The Panthers 34-15 bench scoring margin was spearheaded by Brown’s 13 points and aided by 13 more from Murphy, who added four rebounds and three assists. Murphy is known for his 3-point shooting ability, but showed he’s capable of affecting the game in other ways as well.

Johnson also chipped in 13 points and six assists while going 5-8 from the free throw line. McGowens turned in a well-rounded game of 10 points, five assists and seven rebounds, though he also committed a team-high six turnovers.

Pitt basketball is undefeated through one game and has passed the first of a long series of tests that it will face this season. Postgame, Murphy and Brown moved quickly from Wednesday to Saturday, using the “brick by brick” motto that Capel has made the calling card for this year’s team.

“Coach has said ‘brick by brick’ and this is brick one,” Murphy said.

Brown then interjected.

“And we got brick two on Saturday.”

The Panthers welcome Nicholls State for a noon tip-off on Saturday from the Petersen Events Center.