Pitt embarrassed at home by Notre Dame, 84-56

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

It was a perfect encapsulation of how the night went for Pitt men’s basketball. 

With 11:28 remaining in the game and Pitt trailing by 20, junior point guard Xavier Johnson left an open layup short at the rim. He battled for the ball briefly with Notre Dame’s senior forward Nikola Djogo before that evolved to light pushing and shoving.

Johnson and Djogo both picked up technical fouls, but Johnson took the worst of the encounter. In addition to the technical foul, he was called for a foul after Djogo had secured the rebound. It would be Johnson’s fifth foul, disqualifying him for the remainder of the game. 

When he arrived at the bench, Johnson — forced to watch the blowout roll on from the bench — threw a towel down in frustration. 

Pitt (8-5 overall, 4-4 ACC) put forth a performance that head coach Jeff Capel called “deplorable” and “embarrassing” in an 84-58 beat down at the hands of Notre Dame (6-9 overall, 3-6 ACC). The Panthers were unable to keep the Irish’s dribble penetration contained and were buried by their blistering 54% shooting mark on 3-point shots. 

The start of the game was fast and tight. Both Pitt and the Irish shot the ball efficiently and got up and down the floor with pace. Sophomore forward Justin Champagnie was his usual, brilliant self in the game’s opening minutes. He scored six points and gathered three rebounds before the first media timeout of the game. 

Champagnie is fresh off of his second consecutive ACC Player of the week award and played up to his billing as one of the conference’s best players once again. He finished the game with 19 points and 11 rebounds in 35 minutes of action. 

But unfortunately for Pitt, Champagnie’s efforts went largely unsupported from his teammates. The 12 players not named Justin Champagnie who saw the floor on Saturday for Pitt combined to shoot 15-53 from the field and commit each of the team’s eight turnovers. 

Capel had no answers. He reached deep into his bench, even calling on junior walk-on Onyebuchi Ezeakudo as well as first-years William Jeffress and Noah Collier, who had all seen limited action in recent weeks, for significant minutes. He said their playing time was experimentation — an attempt to find any combination of players that could provide a spark. 

“We were just trying to find five guys to play hard,” Capel said. “So it didn’t matter whether [the lineup] was big, small, whatever. We just wanted guys who would execute the things that we talked about.”

And for as poor as Pitt was on the offensive end, its defense was worse. Notre Dame navigated the Panther sets with extreme ease, finding open looks close to the basket early and often. Then, even if Pitt was able to keep them out of the paint, the Irish would simply kick the ball out to one of their deadly 3-point shooters on the wing. 

Junior guards Cormac Ryan and Prentiss Hubb were automatic for Notre Dame from deep. They each made five 3-point field goals and combined to miss only three. 

Capel was as negative as a coach can be about his team’s effort when defending the Irish. He was asked postgame where he thought his team’s biggest failures on the defensive end came from. 

“Everything,” Capel said. “Everything defensively — effort, communication. Everything. Rotation. Everything. Transition D. Post D. Everything.”

Capel, who was the only member of the program to speak to the media following the game, said that the loss was a top-to-bottom failure, which the entire team needs to own.

“This is about us,” Capel said. “We were bad. We were bad collectively. It wasn’t just one person. Everyone on our team was bad. So it’s correcting everyone … This is not about one guy … We have to be better as a group.”

Pitt is now reeling. It’s followed up a three-game winning streak with a three-game losing streak, and the upcoming schedule is not a welcoming sight. The Panthers’ next three games will all come against teams currently ranked in the top 25. 

But Capel said he isn’t focused on the impending gauntlet. He’s thinking smaller, hoping to make Pitt’s next practice a good one.

“I’m worried about practice,” Capel said. “That’s all I’m worried about, is us getting back together on Monday and practicing and figuring it out from there. We have a lot of work to do.”

The Panthers will be back in action on Wednesday at home against Virginia Tech. Tip-off from the Pete is scheduled for 7 p.m.