Win over GT showcases sorely needed skills

By Nick Farabaugh, For the Pitt News

Since Pitt hired Jeff Capel in March 2018, fans have watched his young Pitt team in hopes of seeing progress. A 14-19 (3-15 ACC) first season was a step forward for a Panther squad that won zero games in conference the year prior. 

Still, it was clear that this rebuild was never going to be easy. Yet the Panthers already eclipsed their win total from last year with a win at the Petersen Events Center over Georgia Tech on Saturday. 

Saturday’s game meant much more than just another notch in the win column. From an electric scoring performance by budding star and first-year forward Justin Champagnie, to the evolving, enigmatic nature of sophomore guards Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson, here are some observations from Pitt’s 73-64 victory over Georgia Tech.

Justin Champagnie is settling in perfectly

Jeff Capel noted during his postgame press conference that Champagnie has some unusual circumstances that made his performance on Saturday, and throughout the season, so impressive. Champagnie did not have the normal summer or fall preparation time due to various injuries, yet has made a strong case for himself as Pitt’s best player this season.

When you think about the truncated time that Champagnie had to adjust to college basketball, what he did Saturday was all the more extraordinary. He went for a 30-point explosion on 3-4 from 3-point range and 13-17 from the field in one of the better shooting performances by a Pitt player in recent memory.

And many of his 17 attempts were not wide open, either — they were heavily contested shots that he managed to hit. He found every possible opening in the Yellow Jacket zone, no matter how slim the window.

Add in nine hard-fought rebounds, four of which came on the offensive end, and Champagnie was a massive contributor to the win. He only has room to grow from here. His perimeter defense, especially his ability to squeeze lanes on the baseline and the shooting radius he allows in the corner, will be key to his growth. But when you see a first-year player do what Champagnie has, his potential can’t be underestimated.

The guards bounce back

Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson have been burdened with much of the blame for Pitt’s struggles this season. The duo that was the heartbeat of a young Panthers team last year has turned the ball over far more than they would like to admit. But against Georgia Tech’s 2-3 zone, McGowens and Johnson were as sharp as they’ve been in their Panther careers.

Between the two guards, Pitt got clutch-free throw shooting down the stretch and a combined 16 assists, 25 points, six steals and — most importantly — only two turnovers. Johnson had no turnovers on the day and played his cleanest game of ACC play. They both were hounds on the defensive end on Saturday and pressured the lengthy, taller Michael Devoe and forwards for the Yellow Jackets.

It was an efficient performance that Capel gushed about in his press conference and for good reason.

“For us to not turn it over and attack their zone, I thought it was big time,” Capel said. “For us to have 16 assists on 24 field goals is huge and only eight turnovers, for our two guards to have 16 assists and two turnovers is big time for ourselves.”

If McGowens and Johnson can give this kind of performance on days when they are not shooting well, Pitt can put together more performances like Saturday.

Terrell Brown’s big day

Another consistently unpredictable member of this Panthers team is Terrell Brown. There is no doubt that the talent is there. Brown has a smooth shooting form and can stretch the floor. He has good footwork down low and can bully opposing bigs with his size. He has the length to be a great rim protector and block shots, though it doesn’t always click for him.

However, everything came together on Saturday. Brown had a monstrous block that riled up the Oakland Zoo. It was a microcosm of the physicality and grit he showcased throughout the contest. The Yellow Jackets couldn’t get anything going in the post while Brown was out there. He did foul out of the game, but his 18 minutes on the floor showcased his full array of skills.

The Panthers have sorely missed that big, intimidating presence down low, but they had it on Saturday. That was Brown’s best game in a Panthers uniform. If he can put together more games like this one, Pitt has a chance to go on a nice run down the stretch. 

Consistency has been elusive all year for the Panthers, but if they can come to rely on the same kind of strong performances that the likes of Brown, Champagnie, McGowens and Johnson exhibited against Georgia Tech, Capel’s rebuild can accelerate to a remarkable extent.