McGowens, Champagnie lead Pitt over UNC, 73-65


Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Sophomore guard Xavier Johnson kept the Panthers afloat on offense in one of his season’s best performances.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

Pitt men’s basketball entered the unfriendliest of confines on Wednesday night. Beforehand, the Panthers were 0-7 all-time when facing North Carolina on the road. But they took another step toward wiping clean the stain of the Kevin Stallings era with a 73-65 win over the Tar Heels.

Pitt (11-4 overall, 2-2 ACC) traveled to Chapel Hill for the first game of a home and home series with conference foe UNC (8-7 overall, 1-3 ACC). The Panthers began the night with outstanding ball movement, assisting on their first three made field goals, but long scoring droughts allowed UNC to open up leads as big as 12 in the first half.

In all-too-familiar fashion, Pitt went more than five minutes without scoring and relied on its defense to carry a single-digit deficit into halftime. Sophomore guard Xavier Johnson kept the Panthers afloat on offense in one of his best performances this season.

Johnson scored nine of his 17 points in the first half to pace Pitt before transitioning to the role of facilitator in the second half and recording two assists.

The Panthers, despite being out-shot and out-rebounded in the opening period, kept things tight on Tobacco Road with opportunistic defense. Pitt baited UNC into five first-half turnovers which turned into four points.

First-year forward Armando Bacot dominated the first 20 minutes for UNC. He tallied nine points and six rebounds to aid the Tar Heels’ advantage inside the paint against Pitt’s struggling bigs.

But during the intermission, somewhere in the bowels of the Dean E. Smith Center, Pitt found a 3-point shot. UNC kept the visitors at arm’s length for the second period’s initial minutes.

All of a sudden, first-year forward Justin Champagnie opened a barrage of 3-pointers. He shot 4-6 from 3-point distance in the second half, the second coming with 14 minutes remaining to give Pitt its first lead of the game.

After tying the game at 56, Pitt embarked on an 8-0 run to gain its largest lead of the game with 5:36 remaining.

The Panthers wouldn’t look back. For nearly 30 minutes of game time, they appeared to be headed for another deflating conference loss. But their second-half flurry of triples changed the game’s complexion in an instant.

Pitt shot a blistering 8-12 from distance in the second half to power the comeback. Sophomore guard Trey McGowens led the way with 22 points, eight assists and six rebounds in a performance reminiscent of his 30-point outbursts from last season. Champagnie added 22 points and eight rebounds.

For UNC, junior forward Garrison Brooks was unexpectedly versatile. He posted a 21-point, 10-rebound double-double and even hit his first 3-pointer of the season. Bacot and senior guard Brandon Robinson were the only other Tar Heels to score in double figures.

Pitt head coach Jeff Capel and his squad were not the story entering Wednesday night’s game. Despite losing 22 straight conference road games and holding an 0-7 record at UNC, it was the Tar Heels unexpected mediocrity that dominated the lead-up narratives.

But for now, the Panthers move in the shadows. At 2-2 in the ACC, Pitt is poised to take advantage of a down year in the conference.

Next up, the Panthers head to Coral Gables for a Sunday evening clash with Miami. Tip-off is slated for 6 p.m.