Panthers fall victim to post-FSU hangover, Nicholls, 75-70

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Panthers fall victim to post-FSU hangover, Nicholls, 75-70

Sophomore Xavier Johnson (1) rushes around Nicholls State's defense.

Sophomore Xavier Johnson (1) rushes around Nicholls State's defense.

Carolyn Pallof | Staff Photographer

Sophomore Xavier Johnson (1) rushes around Nicholls State's defense.

Carolyn Pallof | Staff Photographer

Carolyn Pallof | Staff Photographer

Sophomore Xavier Johnson (1) rushes around Nicholls State's defense.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

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It didn’t take much for Nicholls State head coach Austin Claunch to sum up his team’s 75-70 win over Pitt on Saturday afternoon.  

“Not a lot of words.”

It was the second consecutive ugly showing for Pitt (1-1 overall, 1-0 ACC) against the Colonels (1-1 overall 0-0 Southland) and it was clear from the opening minutes that the Panthers were in for another rock fight. 

Beginning at the 19:10 mark of the first half, the Panthers turned the ball over three times in less than a minute and trailed Nicholls State 4-1 after just two minutes had left the clock. Pitt did not make its first field goal until a layup from first-year forward Justin Champagnie made it 9-3 Colonels with 14:50 left in the opening period.

That bucket sparked 10-3 run over two minutes of game time that brought the Panthers within two just before the midway point of the first half. Pitt continued to hang around in large part thanks to the continued hot shooting of junior guard Ryan Murphy. 

Murphy’s 17 first-half points kept Pitt afloat for a while, but Nicholls responded with a barrage of 3-pointers that overpowered the Panther defense and opened up a 41-31 lead for the Colonels at halftime. 

It was an unexpected storm of triples and Murphy said postgame that he and his teammates had a hard time reacting. 

“There were times where we had hands up and it was just going in,” Murphy said. “The guys on the other team got into a good rhythm, just making shots. I think we could have pressured the ball a little more, myself included.” 

Nicholls made seven of 14 3-point attempts in the first half, including two from senior forward Hunter D’Angelo and three from junior guard Jeremiah Buford. The Colonels also collected nine offensive rebounds, which turned into 13 second-chance points. 

Pitt went to the halftime locker room visibly frustrated with its lackluster opening 20 minutes. 

Pitt played with renewed energy following the intermission but still couldn’t account for Colonel shooters from distance. Through the first five minutes of the period, junior guard Kevin Johnson matched every Panther bucket with one of his own, scoring 11 his 16 points during that stretch. 

Still, the Panthers continued to chip away. Junior forward Terrell Brown contributed another efficient game inside with eight points on perfect 4-4 shooting from the field. as well as three offensive rebounds and five blocks. Brown was one of the few Pitt players to contribute the energy that head coach Jeff Capel thought his team sorely lacked.

“The turnovers, giving up 19 offesnive rebounds, not being able to execute,” Capel said. “All those things [hurt us], but mainly the energy to play, the energy to come out and compete, the energy to be all in for every possession right away. We didn’t have that.”

The Panthers relied on their talent and athleticism to continue to inch closer and closer toward Nicholls and it appeared for a minute as if the Panthers might be able to will themselves to a win. 

Pitt hovered around a four- and five-point deficit for most of the final 10 minutes of the game, and even battled to a one-point deficit with 4:05 remaining after consecutive transition buckets from Murphy and sophomore guard Xavier Johnson. But that would be as close as the Panthers got. 

The Colonels scored seven straight points to push their lead back to eight and never looked back. They sank six of their final seven free throws down the stretch to keep the Panthers at arm’s length and escape with a win. They even appropriately punctuated their win with a strip of Murphy and score with 10 seconds left. 

Claunch praised his team’s toughness in the game’s waning minutes, crediting it to their acceptance of adversity following an overtime loss at Illinois last week. 

“I’ve had that experience both ways, coming out not ready to go and it goes south in a hurry …” Claunch said. “Embrace the good stuff, embrace the bad stuff. There is going to be adversity, we knew they were going to make a run … I think our experience which goes back to the Illinois game, just that trust we have in each other, was shown there in the last winning minutes.” 

And after Wednesday’s result forecasted nothing but blue skies ahead for the Panthers, they are now faced with a clouded future. This Pitt team is still trying to form an identity and the public is still trying to piece together what comes next in Capel’s rebuild.

But for Capel the answer is both intrinsically complicated and maddeningly simple.

“We have to grow up,” Capel said. “We’re not as good as our guys maybe think we are or as we think we are … So it’s a great lesson … You would have hoped we learned it last year because of all of them, but we’re still not there yet as a program and we have to continue to grow in that area.”

Once again, Pitt must return to the mental growth emphasized during the offseason and regroup before for a quick turnaround. Capel has 76 hours to underscore that focus before a short road trip to Moon Township for a showdown with Robert Morris on Tuesday night. Tip-off from the brand new UMPC Events Center is scheduled for 6 p.m.

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