Sluggish second half stops Pitt’s ACC Tournament run

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Joy Cao | Staff Photographer

Sophomore guard Xavier Johnson (1) scored 16 points during Pitt’s 59-56 loss to Virginia on Saturday.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

Pitt head coach Jeff Capel has said often throughout ACC play that his team has been tired. Their bye week came at the very end of the season, meaning they had six days off before they began ACC Tournament play.

It appeared that they had put that rest to good use. The Panthers played one of their best games of the season on Tuesday afternoon in an 81-72 win over Wake Forest in the tournament’s opening round. Pitt’s offense — a weakness for them all season — was smooth and effective.

But in their second game in 24 hours, Pitt (16-17 overall, 6-14 ACC) looked like the same worn-out, beat-up team that they had been since conference play began. They ran out of gas in the second half against NC State (20-12 overall, 11-10 ACC), losing 73-58 on Wednesday afternoon. 

The Panther offense was bogged down by some physical play in the first half. Wolfpack guards baited starting sophomore guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens into eight first half turnovers. Pitt had nine as a team, which NC State turned into 18 points on the other end. 

Despite the turnovers, McGowens and Johnson carried the load offensively. They combined for 21 points on 7-13 shooting from the floor to keep their team afloat. But their scoring was barely enough to match that of NC State’s redshirt junior Devon Daniels. 

The 6-foot-5 guard dropped 15 points on 6-7 shooting through the first 20 minutes of action. 

A Daniels 3-pointer pushed the NC State lead to double-digits with little more than seven minutes remaining in the opening period. His triple capped a lightning-fast 8-0 run that took only 1:47 of game time.

But the Panthers responded with a run of their own, 11-4, to cut the gap to only three as they hit the locker rooms at halftime. Johnson suffered an extended stay on the bench after picking up a pair of fouls, but scored seven points during that run for Pitt after returning. 

The Panthers and Wolfpack remained deadlocked for much of the second half, but around the nine minute mark, Pitt’s fatigue began to show. They were slow rotating on defense, the offense lacked crisp motion and passing and NC State lapped them up and down the floor. 

NC State led by just six with 9:20 remaining in regulation after a made free throw from first-year forward Karim Coulibaly. But the Panthers would never get closer than that. Redshirt junior forward D.J. Funderburk led an all-out assault on the glass for the Wolfpack. They outrebounded the Panthers into submission and turned those rebounds into the second-chance points that delivered the final blow to Pitt’s season.

Pitt made three field goals over the final 9:20 of their 2020 season, allowing the Wolfpack to gain leads as large as 20 before head coach Kevin Keatts emptied his bench. 

Johnson finished as Pitt’s high scorer with 15 points and added eight rebounds, but his eight turnovers loom just as large, considering Pitt’s first half struggles. A day removed from a 31-point outburst, first-year forward Justin Champagnie turned in a pedestrian final tally of nine points and three rebounds. 

Daniels led the game with 23 points. His offense was backed by senior guard Markell Johnson, junior guard Braxton Beverly, redshirt senior guard C.J. Bryce and Funderburk, who all scored in double-figures as well. Johnson added 11 assists. 

The Wolfpack will continue their push through the ACC Tournament and towards the NCAA Tournament tomorrow against the No. 3 seed Duke, while the Panthers concluded their fourth consecutive losing season.

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