Pitt students began their Thanksgiving break exodus on Thursday afternoon — and attendance at the Petersen Events Center reflected that. Crowd energy was low when Pitt men’s basketball (4-2 overall, 1-0 ACC) tipped off against Arkansas-Pine Bluff (0-5 overall).
But the Panthers more than picked up the slack for their light audience. After a sloppy, lethargic start on Monday against Monmouth, Pitt opened with the kind of energy and execution that closed Monday’s 14-point win.
On Pitt’s first possession, sophomore guard Xavier Johnson found junior forward Terrell Brown behind the Golden Lions’ zone defense for an and-one alley-oop to give the Panthers a quick 3-0 advantage.
For the remainder of the game, Pitt used stifling defense to force the Lions into more turnovers (22) than made field goals (15). Those 22 turnovers turned into 22 points on the other end, a figure that Lions head coach George Ivory thought was damning.
“I think the turnovers hurt us a lot,” he said. “Anytime you play against a good team, you can’t just turn the ball over like that because they’re going to get their opportunities and score the basketball.”
It wasn’t just the defense that saw a crisper effort. Pitt’s offense showed great strides as well. The Panthers moved the ball quickly and attacked the Lions with precision. Johnson in particular, who has plagued his team with sloppy turnovers through his first five games, attacked in a different way. He played like an expert facilitator, dishing out four assists in the first half.
From there he settled into his scoring rhythm, finding open looks from 3-point distance and knocking down three in the period.
Johnson appears to have turned a corner following ugly showings against West Virginia and Monmouth and is fitting in more comfortably among his teammates.
“Some guys, including myself, worry too much about the individual ways to produce,” Johnson said. “We try to compete with other guys but when one guy scores we all score, and that’s what matters most.”
First-year forward Justin Champagnie took that message to heart, fully utilizing Johnson’s proficiency in finding the middle of a 2-3 zone. Champagnie was the beneficiary of six assists on his eight total field goals.
He finished with a team-high 18 points and six rebounds on 75% shooting from the field, but Capel still thinks the talented first-year can reach new heights with a little push.
“We think he’s a talented kid but we want more from him and we’re going to be hard on him because we think he can do more,” Capel said. “At times it looks like he’s not going as hard. Part of that is because he’s a gifted athlete … But, there’s a few more levels we think he can get to.
While Johnson manned the top of the zone on offense and Champagnie drew defenders to the middle, graduate transfer forward Eric Hamilton snuck behind the Lions’ defense for 12 easy points on five made field goals. All were either dunks or layups.
His head coach, however, believes Hamilton added more value on the defensive glass.
“[Hamilton] and I met the other day and I told him ‘Look, we’re five games in and you only have one defensive rebound. That’s unacceptable,’” Capel said. “That’s something we need from all of our post guys.”
Hamilton delivered and so did the rest of his teammates. Capel praised his team’s communication and credited its efficient results to increasing comfort and communication between teammates.
But even after a blowout win, the Panthers are clearly not resting on their laurels. After watching Johnson go for six assists and no turnovers on Thursday night, Champagnie was asked how good Johnson’s passing abilities are.
“They ain’t good enough,” Champagnie said in jest.
They joked and laughed in front of the media, but Capel took a more serious tone. He was “pleased” with his team’s performance, but made sure to temper his emotions as Pitt prepares to take on its second Power Five opponent of the young season on Sunday, Kansas State.
The Panthers will next head to Fort Myers, Florida, for a 6 p.m. tipoff with the Wildcats as part of the Fort Myers Tip-Off tournament.