Shorthanded Panthers can’t complete comeback vs. Louisville, lose 64-54

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

Despite multiple gutsy comeback attempts, Pitt men’s basketball (5-2 overall, 1-1 ACC) was unable to overcome the absence of two key players and its head coach on Tuesday night in a 64-54 loss to Louisville (5-1 overall, 1-0 ACC) at the Petersen Events Center.

As if missing head coach Jeff Capel — who tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend — wasn’t enough, more devastating roster news rocked the Pitt men’s basketball program an hour before tip-off. While the Panthers were warming up, Pitt announced that star forwards Justin Champagnie and Au’Diese Toney would not play after suffering leg injuries in practice on Sunday. 

Toney’s injury to his right ankle is assumed to be mild, according to Pitt athletics spokesperson Matt Plizga. Toney is currently being evaluated day-to-day. Champagnie, on the other hand, is in a much more serious state. He is expected to miss six to eight weeks after injuring his knee according to Plizga. The frontcourt duo combine to average 34 points and 17.3 rebounds per contest, making them vital on both ends of the court.

With their two leading scorers in street clothes and associate head coach Tim O’Toole manning the sidelines in Capel’s absence, Pitt looked as ineffective on offense as they have all season.

The Panthers missed 10 of their first 12 shots from the floor. Meanwhile, the Cardinals were thriving with leading scorer and graduate transfer guard Carlik Jones back on the floor after missing the team’s last game versus Wisconsin with an injury.

Jones scored six points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists in the opening

period. He was aided by a balanced scoring effort from his teammates as well. Sophomores Samuell Wiliamson and David Johnson chipped in seven points a piece in the first half.

What was billed as a matchup between two of the ACC’s two premier guards failed to live up to the hype. While Jones was solid for the Cardinals, Pitt’s junior guard Xavier Johnson, the only member of Pitt’s “Big Three” who played Tuesday night, was ineffective. He recorded only two points to go along with three turnovers and two fouls in the first half.

Things were heading south fast for Pitt and it appeared as if they were in for a long night, but Panther first-years provided a spark.

With the Panthers trailing 21-7 near the midway point of the first half, forward John Hugley converted a strong layup to spark things on the offensive end. Then first-year guard Femi Odukale brought the fire.

The crafty point guard, who subbed in for Johnson when he was relegated to the bench with foul trouble, carried Pitt on a 17-6 run that lasted more than seven minutes and trimmed the deficit to one with 4:25 left in the first half.

Entering the game Tuesday, Odukale had scored 13 points all season. In the first 20 minutes of Tuesday’s game he scored 12. After learning about the severity of Toney and Champagnie’s injuries on Monday, Odukale prepared to take on more minutes. He tried to keep things simple and not let the injuries to his teammates affect his play.

“We were kind of depressed because those are two big players and on top of that, they’re like our brothers,” Odukale said. “We were torn that half of their season’s cut due to injury, but after that we can’t sulk. Everybody’s got to step up now.”

They didn’t sulk, but the energy and competitiveness they brought, which O’Toole praised postgame, proved to not be enough to put Pitt over the top.

The second half began just as the first half did. Louisville scored a quick six points in a row to push their lead back to seven by the under-16-minute media timeout. Then the Panthers and Cardinals continued to trade buckets for much of the period.

Pitt looked more comfortable on the offensive end, but on the other end of the court it was unable to finish possessions with defensive rebounds. Louisville outrebounded the Panthers 45-26 on Tuesday night and owned a 15-8 advantage on the offensive glass. Louisville scored 23% of its total points off of second chance opportunities.

David Johnson was essential to that end for the Cardinals. In the absence of Pitt’s two best rebounders, he recorded a 17-point, 11-rebound double-double that gave the Panther frontcourt fits.

The Panthers still stayed within striking distance. With 6:32 left in the game, an Odukale jumper brought Pitt back within five. But Lousiville responded with another devastating counterpunch. It reeled off a 9-2 run in little under four minutes that put the game away for good.

Pitt’s five-game winning streak has been snapped, but it seemed to lose much more than just a game Tuesday. With an opportunity to steal a conference win, the Panthers are now on the edge of spiraling back down the black hole of conference play that has plagued them for years.

With Toney out indefinitely and Champagnie a ways from returning, Pitt is left to pick up the pieces with a talented, but inexperienced bench. O’Toole said he was disappointed in the loss, but added that the Panthers can’t allow the sting of defeat to dwell.

“We weren’t good enough to win, and you’ll look at this which makes our young guys have a natural tendency to feel sorry for themselves,” O’Toole said. “There’s absolutely zero feeling sorry for yourself. These things that we did, we need to correct because what awaits us is Duke. Then after that is Notre Dame and then it is Florida State. It doesn’t matter because it does not get easier.”

O’Toole said Pitt players will now go through COVID-19 testing and take their NCAA-mandated three days off for Christmas at home, but there’s little rest for the weary. A date with the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Dec. 29 awaits on the other side of the holiday break.