Panthers fall to St. Francis in season opener, 80-70

Carolyn+Pallof+%7C+Senior+Staff+Photographer

Carolyn Pallof | Senior Staff Photographer

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

An empty arena, socially distant benches, coaches and staff in masks — college basketball is back and, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, looks wildly different. But for Pitt men’s basketball, opening night on Wednesday was like deja vu.

Nicholls State last year. Niagara the year before. This year, it was St. Francis’ turn to hand the Pitt Panthers an embarrassing early season loss at home to a mid-major opponent. 

An offseason loaded with promise for Pitt (0-1) has already been marred by an ugly, defeat to St. Francis (1-0), 80-70 on Wednesday night. In a game which they were expected to win easily, the Panthers looked overmatched. They were unable to score, defend or take care of the ball and limped to the finish in head coach Jeff Capel’s first opening night loss at Pitt.

The game began innocently enough. Junior forward Au’Diese Toney, who many expect to deliver a breakout year, gathered a missed 3-pointer from sophomore forward Justin Champagnie and put it back for an easy two points, Pitt’s first of the season. 

But things went downhill quickly from there.

The Red Flashes scored the next eight points and did not look back. Pitt took too long to find an offensive rhythm that could keep up and would get no closer than five for the rest of the night. It was a jarring start, Toney said. 

“We came out sluggish,” Toney said. “It wasn’t aggressive like it is usually, like it’s supposed to be at the opening tip … They hit us in the mouth. They gave us our own blood.”

Capel agreed. He said his team “panicked” early when they couldn’t get shots to go down. The effects of their start snowballed and buried the Panthers before they could even breathe. 

“When you’re playing against a team that’s won like they have and has some guys back that were part of a team that won 22 games and made it to their conference championship game, they see that,” Capel said. “They prey off of [panic].”

St. Francis unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers, shredding both Pitt’s man and zone defensive looks. Junior forward Myles Thompson and first-year guard Maxwell Land nailed a pair of triples on that run, but it was the sophomore guard Bryce Laskley who lit up the Panthers. He hit three 3-pointers in the first half. 

Those were Laskey’s only points of the game. His limited role in the second half allowed senior Ramiir Dixon-Conover to take over. Ten of his 21 points came in the second half. He also shot 5-6 from the free throw line to help stave off a late Pitt comeback.

The Panthers trailed by as many as 20, and were only able to make the game close with a late push of defensive intensity. But it was too little too late. 

The Red Flashes played outstanding team basketball. Dixon-Conover was joined in a double-figure scoring by four other Red Flashes — Thompson, Land and first-year guard Ronell Giles Jr. The Red Flashes also assisted on 17 of their 27 made field goals.

St. Francis did all of the “little” things Pitt didn’t — pursue 50-50 balls, contest shots, rebound —  and Capel and the Panthers noticed. He was not just upset, but also confused as to why the Panthers were unable to play with a greater sense of urgency. 

And while he was quick to commend St. Francis for their dominant offensive play, Capel also bemoaned his team’s lack of energy. 

“Disappointing for us,” Capel said. “We didn’t play… with the energy required to become a really good team. And I’m not really sure why.”

But the Panthers are not panicking. Both Toney and first-year forward William Jeffress were confident that Pitt will bounce back. Jeffress chose to highlight the offensive potential this team still has, while Toney said he encouraged his teammates to relax.

“I told them ‘At the end of the day, it’s basketball,’” Toney said. “‘Just play your game,’… I try to lift them up everytime.”

And there were a few bright spots. Toney finished with a game-high 20 points. And after shooting less than 33% from 3-point distance last season, made four triples on six attempts Wednesday night.

For as deflating as Wednesday night was, Pitt doesn’t have much time to dwell. The Panthers get two days off before welcoming Drexel to the Pete for a 1p.m. tip-off on Saturday. The game will be broadcast on the ACC Network Extra.  

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