Pitt channels inner Rocky, beats Monmouth 63-50


Carolyn Pallof | Staff Photographer

Sophomore guard Xavier Johnson (1) scored 15 points during Pitt’s 63-50 victory over Monmouth.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

The air inside the media suite of the Petersen Events Center was oddly fresher than what occupied its court and stands Monday night.

After his Panthers turned in what many would consider their poorest performance to date, head coach Jeff Capel offered a shocking take.

“I’m excited,” Capel said. “I hope people are excited. I hope our guys are excited.”

Pitt men’s basketball (3-2 overall, 1-0 ACC) opened its Monday night game against Monmouth (1-4 overall, 0-0 MAAC) about as flatly as a team can. The Panthers shot 19% from the field and committed 12 turnovers in the opening period. They overcame these struggles to secure a 63-50 win, but not without 20 minutes of ugly.

As they have been all season, Pitt’s star sophomore guards were the main culprits of its brutally inefficient and sloppy first half. Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens shot a combined 2-9 from the field and turned the ball over four times. As a team, the Panthers did not score a field goal until almost four minutes had burned off the game clock.

It got so bad that head coach Jeff Capel called for walk-on sophomore Onyebuchi Ezeakudo to replace Johnson with 14:11 left in the first half.

The Panthers trailed by as many as six in the opening period, which elicited scattered boos from the home crowd and only grew louder as the deficit persisted.

But Pitt was kept afloat by the energy and intensity of sophomore Au’Diese Toney and first-year Justin Champagnie. The duo of forwards scored six points each on 4-4 shooting from the free-throw line and combined for 11 rebounds in the first half. Toney was frustrated during the first half, and he let his play reflect that.

“I felt like we needed some kind of energy, so I was attacking the glass hard to get the team pumped up,” Toney said.

In the second half, Toney continued to crash the boards like a man possessed — he finished with seven rebounds, four of them offensive — but the period belonged to Johnson.

After an All-ACC season a year ago, Johnson failed to live up to expectations through the first four games of his sophomore campaign. Those struggles continued well into Monday night, but at halftime, Johnson refocused, and showed shades of his first-year self.

He tallied 13 points on an efficient 5-9 mark from the field in the second half. But his playmaking and efficient long-range shooting were the most impressive, as he shot 2-4 on 3-pointers and dished out seven assists without committing a turnover.

Johnson made some personal changes since he and his teammates suffered an embarrassing defeat to rival West Virginia last Friday. He deactivated his social media accounts in an attempt to shut out the noise and criticism surrounding his play.

“I cut off Twitter because I was reading what other people were saying about me,” he said. “It was bad. I was getting really upset about it. I was thinking too much about it. But my teammates and my coaching staff were all in my corner telling me not to worry about it.”

This move came after a discussion Capel and Johnson had following the West Virginia game. In that conversation, Capel used a Philadelphia icon to illustrate how the previously “unknown kid from northern Virginia,” as Capel put it, can regain the edge that made him great.

With [Johnson] I equated it to Rocky III,” Capel said. “In Rocky I and II, he hasn’t done anything. He’s just a hungry dude from Philly, and then he wins the title. And that’s who he was … There were no expectations for him and then all of a sudden you have a good year individually … And success can make you soft sometimes.”

Expectations have weighed heavily on the Panthers throughout their first few games. They triumphed over an ACC foe in the opener, suffered a setback to a mid-major, rebounded with a win and were smothered by a rival in front of a sold-out home crowd.

But in the second half on Monday, Pitt played in front of a crowd half the size of Friday’s. And while it might be disorienting to leave a capacity crowd one night and return to one significantly less peopled, it was just what they needed.

Pitt removed the hype, removed the noise and focused not on the attention last year brought, but as Toney succinctly put it, came back with “that ‘dog’ mentality.”

Fueled by Johnson, the Panthers pulled away in the second half. They shot 64% from the field and 60% from 3-point range and outscored the Hawks by 11 in the second half.

Four Panthers scored in double figures, including Champagnie, who finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and a block in 24 minutes of action. McGowens also rebounded from his poor first half to record a game-high 16 points on 40% 3-point shooting.

Pitt now has a chance to do something it hasn’t done in more than nine months — win consecutive games. And if not for their last pair of home performances, that would seem likely. But on a quick turnaround, the Panthers will try to complete the hardest task of program building — winning, not just once, but again.

University of Arkansas Pine Bluff visits the Pete on Thursday for a 7 p.m. tip-off.