Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer
Pitt men’s basketball found itself in an unfamiliar position Wednesday night. For the first time in almost four years, the Panthers played a game in January with postseason implications.
Pitt (14-9 overall, 5-7 ACC) traveled to South Bend, Indiana, for a bout with Notre Dame (14-8 overall, 5-6 ACC). The Irish and Panthers entered Wednesday night with nearly identical records in conference and are jockeying for position in a crowded middle of the ACC. After a back-and-forth opening 20 minutes, Notre Dame escaped with a crucial 80-72 win to begin the second half of the conference schedule.
Notre Dame entered the night No. 23 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency and lived up to its billing as prolific scorers. The Irish shot 50% from the field and 54% from three in the first half, burning Pitt’s typically stout defense for 42 points in the opening period.
The Panthers hung around in South Bend. A 4-9 mark on 3-pointers and 10 points off of turnovers helped Pitt keep within a pair of possessions. But sophomore guard Prentiss Hubb nailed his second three of the game as the buzzer sounded to push the Irish lead to nine at halftime.
Leading by as many as seven, Notre Dame exposed pressure on Irish big men, particularly their leading scorer and rebounder, senior forward John Mooney. The Panthers sent double-teams when the ball swung down low, and Notre Dame passed well out of Pitt’s pressure to get open 3-pointers.
Nevertheless, Pitt kept the deficit to single digits after a less than stellar half. But following the intermission, Notre Dame began to pull away. After Pitt pulled within five at the 15:35 mark in regulation, the Irish embarked on an 11-0 run over 2:29 of game time to open up their largest lead of the game at 16.
The Panthers were never able to recover. Pitt — known for its prolonged scoring droughts — had three such separate stretches of two or more minutes in the second half, and by the time they found any semblance of an offensive rhythm, it was too late.
Trailing by 19 with 7:18 remaining, the Panthers were finally able to find the bottom of the net on a frustrating night. They made a push at the end of the game, making the final score less egregious, but it was too little, too late.
With the loss, Pitt’s struggles on the road persisted further. The Panthers boast just two true road wins in six attempts, and with an even split between home and road affairs over their final eight games, they face an uphill battle to improve their standing in the ACC.
On the brighter side, first-year forward Justin Champagnie recorded another double-double, with 20 points and 11 rebounds, both team highs. Sophomore guards Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson got back on track with 15 and 17 points, respectively, on identical 55% field goal shooting clips. The duo also combined for nine rebounds and six assists to only two turnovers.
The Panthers return to action this Saturday, when they host Georgia Tech for a 2 p.m. tip-off from the Petersen Events Center.