Johnson shines in wild second half, Pitt tops Wildcats 71-70

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

Simply put, Pitt Men’s basketball has been bad on the road under third-year head coach Jeff Capel. The Panthers are 2-20 in true road games with Capel at the helm, but took a step towards flipping that script on Wednesday night. 

Trailing by five with 34 seconds remaining, the Panthers pulled out a stunning rally in the waning moments. Pitt (3-1 overall) scored six straight points in the game’s final half minute — punctuated by a dunk from sophomore forward Justin Champagnie — to steal a win from Northwestern (2-1 overall) on the road in Evanston, Illinois on Wednesday night.

Pitt trailed for the entirety of the first half. After consecutive efficient offensive performances against Drexel and Northern Illinois, the Panthers were flat and discombobulated for the first 20 minutes on Wednesday. 

An abysmal 8-29 mark from the field and seven turnovers in the opening period tied Pitt down. Despite getting open shots, the visitors couldn’t get any of them to fall. Junior point guard Xavier Johnson’s struggles were the most glaring.

Pitt’s floor general shot a lowly 1-9 from the field in the first half and was clearly pressing the issue more than he should. In shades of his first-year self, Johnson’s desperation to right the ship led to even more turnovers and missed shots. 

“In the first half I thought I was stuck on myself,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t make a layup. I was just frustrated and I was speeding myself up and thinking ‘I got to get this back,’ and this and that.”

But fortunately for Pitt, the Northwestern offense that scored more than 200 points through their first two contests did not show up. The typically run-and-gun Wildcats shot capably from 3-point distance, but their own poor shooting numbers and turnover woes kept the game close. 

Capel credited the Northwestern shooting struggles to a focused defensive effort throughout the game from his Panthers. 

“Well the thing I was proud of is what we did defensively all night,” Capel said. “We’ve had a tendency in the past where we’ve let our offensive struggles affect our defense and it did not do that tonight. Our defense was really good all night against a very, very explosive and outstanding offensive team.”

Pitt entered halftime down only 11 and after regrouping in the locker room came out looking like a different team.

Johnson scored the first eight Panther points of the second half, but was relegated to the bench after picking up his fourth foul at the 10:45 mark. The Panthers were trailing by one when Johnson went to the bench, and that’s when the Wildcats pounced. 

With Johnson — arguably Pitt’s best player — riding pine, Northwestern embarked on a 7-0 run that pushed the lead to eight with just over five minutes left to play and forced Panthers head coach Jeff Capel to take the risk and put Johnson back in, despite his four fouls. 

A technical foul called on Capel after arguing over a foul call with 5:19 left to play threatened to bury Pitt for good. But it was the play of first-year Panthers that provided a shot in the arm. First, forward John Hugley delivered an emphatic and-one dunk at the 3:39 mark, assisted by classmate William Jeffress. 

Jeffress, the youngest player to appear in a game for an ACC team since 1982, played beyond his years in the first true road game of his career. In addition to solid defense on Northwestern’s outstanding guards, he scored seven points, grabbed four rebounds and dished out a pair of assists for good measure. 

Yet, things looked bleak for Pitt within the final minute. The Panthers trailed by five with junior forward Au’Diese Toney going to the free throw line. Toney made both free throws to cut the lead to three and Pitt pressured the inbounds play. 

It was time for another first-year to make a game changing play. 

Guard Femi Odukale, who covered the point guard duties while Johnson was on the bench with foul trouble, stripped Northwestern’s sophomore guard Boo Buie of the ball and passed it off to Champagnie for a layup. 

Pitt, down one, fouled Buie on the ensuing possession. Buie missed both, giving the Panthers an opportunity for a game winning shot with 16 seconds left. After Buie’s second miss fell off the rim, Johnson grabbed the rebound and sped down the court. He knifed into the lane, collapsing the defense before dumping the ball off to Champagnie for a powerful two-handed dunk. 

With 5.6 seconds remaining, the Wildcats were unable to get a shot off and Pitt’s comeback victory was secured.

When asked if he was looking to make a particular read on the final possession, Johnson said no. He saw Northwestern’s junior forward Pete Nance out of position and an unspoken connection with Champagnie led to the winning play.

“I was just taking what I saw,” Johnson said. “I saw Nance come up, he was too far out. So Justin and I literally made eye contact, eye-to-eye and I dumped it down. I didn’t expect him to dunk it, but he went up there and dunked it. He told me he was cramping and I said ‘Nah, you’re not cramping.’”

Champagnie’s game-winning dunk was just one part of an outstanding night for the second-year Panther. He recorded the first 20-point, 20-rebound game by a Pitt player since Dejuan Blair achieved the feat in 2009. 

Johnson finished with 21 points to lead all scorers. Buie paced Northwestern with 14 points to go along with six assists. 

The Panthers are next in action this Saturday when they return to the Pete for a matinee against Gardner-Webb. Tip-off is slated for 4 p.m. on AT&T Sportsnet.