Pitt flops against rival Syracuse on Senior Night

First-year forward Justin Champagnie competes for possession of the ball.

Pitt basketball entered Wednesday night’s matchup with Syracuse on a four-game skid, desperate to salvage what has been a disheartening second half of the ACC schedule. But in a game that could have proved to be pivotal not only as the Panthers close out this season, but as they approach the impending off season, they failed to show up.

Pitt (15-14 overall, 6-12 ACC) delivered one of its most lackluster performances of the season in a 72-49 loss to rival Syracuse (16-12 overall, 9-8 ACC) on Wednesday night. On its home floor — on Senior Night and with the potential to redeem an ACC resume that has fallen miles behind its own expectations — Pitt simply flopped.

Both teams opened the game tight, shooting a combined 5-16 from the field through the game’s first 4:20. But redshirt junior forward Elijah Hughes opened up the offensive end for Syracuse. He made consecutive buckets following the under-12 media timeout that breathed life into a flat game.

Hughes carried the Orange offense through an ugly first 20 minutes. His 16 points came in bunches and flummoxed both Pitt’s zone and man defensive looks. His head coach, Jim Boeheim, spoke with dry sarcasm about his leading scorers’ play when visiting the Steel City.

“We should probably come to Pittsburgh more because that seems to be where he always plays well,” Boeheim said. “I thought he was really good tonight.”

Hughes finished with 25 points on 8-15 shooting from the field and added nine rebounds for good measure.

The Orange carried a 16-point lead into halftime off the strength of Hughes’ 16 as well as 13 points off of turnovers. The Panthers committed a ghastly 12 turnovers and let up 22 points in the paint.

Pitt’s body language added to an already depressing story told by the statistics. Lifeless defense and sloppy offense plagued the Panthers on both ends and kept them solidly in the deep hole they had dug for themselves.

Fouls began to mount. In the first half, 13 Panthers penalties awarded Syracuse 12 points from the charity stripe and kept Pitt’s stars on the bench. Sophomore guard Xavier Johnson, first-year guard Karim Coulibaly, junior forward Terrell Brown and sophomore forward Au’Diese Toney all were forced to sit for extended first half minutes due to foul trouble.

Pitt capitalized from the free throw line when it got there, but with only four trips on five fouls, the Orange played the cleaner first half.

For every attempt at a punch Pitt delivered, the Orange responded with one of their own. Hughes continued his hot shooting in the second half and first-year guard Joseph Girard III added a quartet of 3-pointers to help the Orange push their lead to as much as 27.

Pitt head coach Jeff Capel spoke with increasingly common defeat and disappointment when describing his and his team’s performance on Wednesday night.

“I didn’t think we had the necessary and required energy to win, especially from a team that’s lost four in a row,” Capel said. “But I don’t think Syracuse had it either, which makes it more disappointing to me … We have to be better … It’s ‘we.’ I am responsible.”

First-year forward Justin Champagnie echoed Capel’s sentiment and attributed Pitt’s lack of intensity to how they take the floor.

“I can only speak for myself,” Champagnie said, “I don’t really know what goes through some of my teammates’ heads and stuff like that. But I think as a team we gotta come out the gates with more energy. It probably starts with warmups. We gotta go through the warmups harder and stop going through the motions so slow, and just pick up our energy.”

Not even Senior Night festivities could provide the proper motivation. Champagnie’s 13 points and 17 rebounds stand out, but Capel said he still expects more from not just his first-year star, but every other Panther as well.

The emotion and positivity of this season’s final game at the Petersen Events Center was quickly marred by a 23-point blowout loss. The Panthers, whose team expectations have tanked with the beginning of ACC play, are sliding at the wrong time and their opportunities to end their season on any semblance of a positive note are thinning. 

They will close the regular season on March 4 in Atlanta against Georgia Tech before preparing for the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina, which begins on March 10. 

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