Champagnie makes history, Pitt walks over Bulldogs, 67-50


Photo by Matt Hawley, Pitt Athletics

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

Pitt men’s basketball (4-1 overall) started strong and cruised to the finish against Gardner-Webb (0-2 overall) for a 67-50 win on Saturday afternoon. The Panthers were fueled by another milestone performance from sophomore forward Justin Champagnie, who became the first Pitt player in program history to record consecutive 20-point, 20-rebound games.

Head coach Jeff Capel said he was worried about this game, but was proud of how his team responded to a tiring, emotional week on and off the court, especially on defense.

“I was worried because I knew my team was tired and I knew that human nature would be an opponent,” Capel said. “I was really proud of how we came out defensively … I thought what we did defensively was big-time.”

But for as good as the defense was, the offense struggled.

The Panthers’ offense had looked about as good as it ever has under Capel through their first four games of the 2020-21 season. The team averaged 78.3 points per game entering Saturday’s matinee, but although from the jump they were ice-cold shooting the ball, Gardner-Webb was too.

Both teams shot a combined 3-27 through the first 10 minutes of play, with all three makes coming from Pitt. On the final college football Saturday of the regular season, the Panthers led by two touchdowns — 14-0 — before Gardner-Webb scored its first points.

First-year guard Anthony Selden nailed a 3-pointer from the right wing for Gardner-Webb with 7:43 left to play in the period. His jumper marked a change in pace for both teams — after Seldon’s make, both teams looked more comfortable on the offensive end.

Because both teams struggled so mightily to score, Champagnie’s prolific scoring totals stood out even more.

Champagnie kept the Pitt offense afloat throughout the game. He followed up a mammoth 20-point, 20-rebound performance against Northwestern on Wednesday with 24 points and 21 rebounds that he made look easy. Matched-up against the relatively small Gardner-Webb frontcourt, Champagnie was dominant.

With 4:18 left in the first half, Champagnie noticed his statline — a pedestrian eight points and four rebounds. While on the bench during a timeout, transfer guard Nike Sibande said he gave Champagnie some specific instructions and he followed through.

“In the first half I had eight [points] and four [rebounds] at one point, and [Sibande] told me ‘Find a way to get six more rebounds before the half ends,’” Champagnie said. “Then I think I got six [rebounds] in a row so I had 10 and 10 at the half. I said I was going to go get [20 and 20] again and that’s what I did.”

But it wasn’t the scoring or rebounding — as good as it was — that caught Capel’s eye. Champagnie added five assists for good measure, adding strong playmaking to an already well-rounded game.

“It’s a big-time performance,” Capel said. “I’m probably more impressed with the five assists by Justin, five assists and only two turnovers and two blocks. He’s a really good player and he has a chance to be a great player.”

Champagnie’s efforts were aided by sophomore forward Karim Coulibaly who, making his fourth consecutive start, was once again solid defensively and on the glass. He gathered nine rebounds — a career high — and scored six points. Junior guard Xavier Johnson chipped in 12 points and four assists, after picking up a pair of early fouls.

The Panthers appear to have put the ugly season opener loss to St. Francis well behind them. While the  team has now won four games in a row, it now enters the gauntlet of ACC play. Capel’s Pitt teams have struggled to string together wins in conference play over his two years in Oakland. But Champagnie won’t let their 9-29 ACC record since 2018 phase him ahead of a trip to Miami next week.

“I’m never nervous.” Champagnie said. “I’m not afraid of nobody. I’m actually looking forward to Miami and going out there and playing hard again for my team.”

Capel said Pitt will get a day’s rest this weekend after playing two games in 72 hours, adding that the Northwestern game and trips to and from Illinois were particularly tiring. The team will return to work on Monday to prepare for the start of the ACC season against Miami.

Tip-off is scheduled for Wednesday at 6 p.m.from Coral Gables, Fla., and the game will be broadcast on the ACC Network.