Pitt punctuates UNC sweep with wire-to-wire win, 66-52

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Pitt punctuates UNC sweep with wire-to-wire win, 66-52

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

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

Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

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

Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

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

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UNC head coach Roy Williams was breathed a heavy sigh as he took the podium for postgame press conferences. 

“Well, I’m getting tired of having to meet you guys like this.” He said. 

Minutes removed from what he described as an ugly 66-52 loss at the hands of the Pitt Panthers (12-6 overall, 3-4 ACC), Williams spoke with a defeated tone about how his UNC Tarheels (8-9 overall, 1-5 ACC) couldn’t do enough. 

“In the first half their defense dominated our offense and our defense couldn’t come up with enough stops to get things going,” Williams said. “I’m proud of how my kids tried… but [we] just didn’t make enough shots… Sort of frustrating to say the least”

On the other bench — Pitt was energized by near-capacity Petersen Events Center crowd and took advantage of the sleepy Tarheels in the first half. Sophomore guard Au’Diese Toney hit a pull-up jumpshot to elicit confetti from the Oakland Zoo and put Pitt up 2-0. And by the 10:33 mark of the opening period, Pitt had built a 14-point lead by the strength of back-to-back 3-pointers from junior guard Ryan Murphy. 

Murphy, coming right off the heels of 2-8 shooting performance Tuesday against Louisville, was an electric offensive threat coming off of the bench. He scored 13 points on 3-8 shooting from 3-point distance, but once again showcased strong playmaking with a pair of assists. 

In that sequence of consecutive 3-pointers, Murphy was the beneficiary of two assists from the game’s high scorer and assister. After Murphy’s barrage of 3-pointers, sophomore guard Xavier Johnson took over. He scored 10 points over the period’s final eight minutes, while collecting a block and rebound for good measure. 

Johnson — the biggest name on this Pitt roster — played up to his star billing Saturday afternoon. He finished with 20 points and six assists, with the latter of those numbers being most essential, according to his head coach, Jeff Capel. 

“I thought he created shots for others, which lead to shots for himself, plays for himself.” Capel said. “Especially in the first half, he was able to get in the paint, he was able to get downhill. I thought he made great decisions. I thought the ball was just moving in the first half. It was crisp and we really shared it and I thought that a big reason for that was [Johnson].”

The Panthers led by 20 at halftime, But their strong first 20 minutes did little to prevent the inevitable scoring droughts Pitt is prone to. Up by 18, the Panthers went on field goal droughts of 7:50 and 5:21, which allowed UNC to inch closer and closer. 

Crisp ball movement in the half court and speed used to outflank the Tarheels in transition was replaced with indecisiveness and complacency. After assisting on 9-15 made field goals in the first half, the Panthers recorded only 3 assists in the second. 

But building a 20-point lead allows for some leeway. Pitt survived off of 12-16 shooting from the freethrow line in the second half to secure a 14-point win and sweep of UNC in 2020.

Pitt stands in an unusual spot. Not one of the elites, but not a cellar-dweller either. They’ve already matched their regular season ACC win total from a year ago, so now what? According to Capel, it means not being satisfied and doing all one can to be as good as Pitt was in the first half.

“I’ve been around a lot of greatness,” Capel said. “And I think greatness is the most overused word in sports… Great is different… I think it’s learned. The guys who are really great, they’re constantly trying to learn and get better. Different ways to beat you. Different ways to get better at their craft… Great doesn’t want to look bad.”

Capel knows his team has a lot of growing to do before they reach “great”, but the former Duke Blue Devil was nonetheless proud to best a traditional rival.

“Beating Carolina is great, especially when you can beat them twice,” Capel said.

Pitt’s pursuit of greatness continues Wednesday night with a 9p.m. date at home against Boston College.

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