“Pitt is back”: Champagnie dominates as Pitt downs Duke, 79-73

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

College basketball’s go-to boogeyman, the Duke Blue Devils, entered the Petersen Events Center on Tuesday night a shell of the dominant image their reputation conjures. 

Despite some recent signs that the youthful roster, loaded with elite talent, had begun to workout some of the kinks, their current 5-3 record does little to strike fear into the hearts of opponents.  

Still, Pitt head coach Jeff Capel — a former Blue Devil player and coach — knows as well as anyone that a win over Duke is always more than just another notch in the win column. Capel said in a media availability on Monday that beating Duke is about taking down one of the biggest bullies in the sport’s history.  

“I was on the last (Duke) team that didn’t make the (NCAA) Tournament,” Capel said. “And even though we were 2-14 — we stunk — people still stormed the court when they beat us. It’s still Duke. It doesn’t matter.”

It might still be Duke — same program that had beaten Pitt five times in a row — but it was not the same team. 

Pitt (8-2 overall, 4-1 ACC), once again relied on the brilliance of sophomore forward Justin Champagnie, who’s 31-point, 16-rebound, five-block masterpiece fueled a 79-73 win over Duke (5-4 overall, 3-2 ACC), the Panthers’ first over the Blue Devils since Feb. 2016.

There was a heightened sense of urgency in the Petersen Events Center Tuesday night. Pitt and Duke both entered highly motivated, but for wildly different reasons. 

The Panthers were looking to break through by gaining a win over a brand name team and vaulting into the ACC’s upper echelon. Duke, on the other hand, was floundering and desperate to re-establish some kind of control over a disappointing season. 

In the early going, Pitt’s desire won out. The Panthers came out of the gates lightning quick. They were relentless on the boards, allowing their guards to push the ball in transition. Panther ball handlers outflanked the Blue Devils’ zone defense and picked it apart by drawing fouls. 

After junior forward Au’Diese Toney canned a trio of free throws during Pitt’s first pair of possessions, first-year forward Justin Champagnie nailed a 3-pointer from the right corner. A fast-break dunk from Toney forced Krzyzewski to call timeout. 

The Devils responded quickly and steadied the game. Three first-year stars for Duke — Jalen Johnson, D.J. Steward and Jeremy Roach — carried the scoring load in the first half with the ACC’s leading scorer, sophomore forward Matthew Hurt, tied down by Pitt’s swarming defense. 

Johnson, Steward and Roach combined for 22 of Duke’s 34 points in the opening period. Their scoring plus the 3-point shooting of sophomore wing Wendell Moore Jr. kept the Blue Devils in the game. 

Pitt would punch, then Duke would punch back. The first 17 minutes of the game were a back and forth, fast-paced affair that brought outsized levels of energy from the limited home crowd as well as either bench. 

But the Panthers eventually broke through again. They ended the half on a 14-3 run that lasted almost four minutes and went to the locker room up by nine. Pitt was prepared to deliver a knockout punch after intermission. 

Consecutive smooth buckets at the open of the second half from sophomore forward Abdoul Karim Coulibaly pushed the Panthers’ advantage back to double digits. Duke countered yet again, but it came as no surprise to Capel. 

He said postgame that he expected the Blue Devils to compete for the entire game and reminded his players that the game wasn’t over until there were zeros on the clock. 

“The older players were stepping up more in that time to talk guys down but we told them it was going to be a forty-minute fight, and we have to keep pushing,” Capel said. “We have to keep pushing, even when we are tired and fatigued.”

Johnson scored seven straight points by himself and pulled the Blue Devils within eight with just under 15 minutes left to play. It was the lift Duke needed and they continued to chip away. 

Duke would get as close as two with 1:21 remaining. Veterans — Hurt and senior guard Jordan Goldwire — and the first-year Johnson dueled with Champagnie, Toney and Xavier Johnson. 

Shaky shooting from the charity stripe by Pitt kept the game closer for longer than it should have, but ultimately, Pitt would string together just enough free throws to keep the Blue Devils at bay. Acrobatic and strong defensive rebounds off of Duke’s desperation jumpers by Chamopagnie sealed the victory.

While Champagnie earned the spotlight with his gaudy raw numbers, Toney’s contributions shouldn’t be overlooked. In addition to receiving lengthy praise from Capel for his defense — Toney turned in an outstanding offensive performance with 22 points and 15 rebounds. 

Jalen Johnson scored 24 points and grabbed 15 rebounds for Duke before fouling out late in the second half. 

This win had a lot of practical benefits — it moved the Panthers within a game of first place in the ACC, extended the winning streak to three games and put them squarely in the NCAA Tournament conversation — but there was a symbolic meaning to this win as well. 

Pitt’s David finally conquering Duke’s Goliath offers a concrete piece of evidence to prove that the wholesale program rebuild that began with Capel’s hire in 2018 is yielding results. 

With this win under their belts, an ounce of swagger has been earned by these Panthers. They finally have the resume to back up the confidence that has always existed and players aren’t afraid to enjoy the spotlight.

Champagnie said he entered tonight looking to insert his name into the Conference Player of the Year conversation, given that he was matched up with the preseason favorite, Hurt. Champagnie wanted the world to know that he wasn’t afraid of Hurt and that Pitt isn’t afraid of the nation’s best either.

“I didn’t think that [Hurt] was better than me, so I went out there and proved it,” Champagnie said.

The Panthers had originally been scheduled to play Boston College this weekend, but the game was postponed because of a positive COVID-19 test and subsequent contact tracing within the Eagles’ program. Pitt still gets three days’ rest before their next game, which is now a contest vs. Wake Forest on Saturday. Tip off is scheduled for 6 p.m.