Pitt begins life after Johnson, Toney with 65-62 loss to NC State


Thomas Yang | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt men’s basketball (9-10 overall, 5-9 ACC) has now lost eight of it’s last nine games after falling 62-65 at NC State (12-9 overall, 8-8 ACC) on Sunday afternoon. The team also lost two of its players, juniors Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney, after they transferred.

By Zack Gibney and Stephen Thompson

The past eight days appeared disastrous for Pitt men’s basketball. After losing to Florida State last Saturday, two of Pitt’s three top scorers and cornerstones of Jeff Capel’s inaugural recruiting class — juniors Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney — transferred.

Pitt (9-10 overall, 5-9 ACC) has now lost eight of its last nine games after falling 62-65 at NC State (12-9 overall, 8-8 ACC) on Sunday afternoon. In the wake of two key personnel losses, head coach Jeff Capel insisted that he felt this loss could be better attributed to the eight-day layoff between games and not the recent roster attrition.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with [personnel changes],” Capel said postgame. “I think it had to do with the layoff of not playing … It’s been a long week, but I think it had more to do with not playing than anything else.”

Over and over, Capel reiterated that the team who took the floor on Sunday afternoon was not wholly different from the team who played Florida State last week. It was an attempt to move past the difficult week as quickly as possible.

Capel spoke to the media for the first time following Johnson and Toney’s departure last Friday, but confusion about when he would speak left some local outlets out of the loop. On Friday morning, Pitt men’s basketball Sports Information Director Matt Plizga sent an email to the various outlets with journalists who cover the team, saying that Capel would host a press conference beginning at 2:30 p.m.

But program officials changed the start time. An unknown person inside the program sent a text to a group of five reporters, including Craig Meyer of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, to inform them of the altered time. The Pitt News was not one of the outlets informed of the change.

The press conference began at about 2:15 p.m., according to those who attended. By 2:30 p.m, the original start time, Capel was wrapping up and giving his final answer.

But the absence of Johnson, Toney and their combined 28.8 points per game was apparent. Johnson had been the team’s capable floor general, a strong passer and at times dominant scorer, while Toney made his living as a slasher, improved spot up-shooter and the primary defender.

Their skills and experience were missed against the Wolfpack, who noticed Pitt plays differently without the two veteran stars.

“I wouldn’t say it was necessarily harder [to prepare for Pitt],” NC State’s junior forward Jericole Hellems said. “It’s just a new look.”

The Pitt offense was ice cold in the first half. It missed 22 of its first 28 shots from the floor and was even lucky to be down only 10 at intermission. The offense looked out of sorts as former reserves took on bigger roles.

First-year Femi Odukale stepped into the role of full-time point guard, sophomore guard Ithiel Horton and senior wing Nike Sibande were trusted with the ball in their hands more often and sophomore forward Justin Champagnie became the target of multiple defenders each time he touched the ball.

With Johnson and Toney gone, opposing defenses have fewer major threats to worry about. This allowed the Wolfpack to send double and even sometimes triple teams to try and keep Pitt’s ACC Player of the Year candidate from scoring and rebounding.

Their efforts proved futile — Champagnie finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, his conference-leading 12th double-double of the season — but it came at a cost. He had to endure physical defending and fight through a lot of contact to make plays amid NC State’s lengthy bigs.

It’s a reality he will have to live with for the rest of his time in college, but Champagnie eventually grew frustrated with what he thought was a lack of calls. It earned him a technical foul just a few minutes into the second half.

His head coach acknowledged that it’s simply the way things are — Champagnie will have to fight through defenses designed to stop him. But that shouldn’t mean his defenders can get away with fouling. Capel, now an ACC institution from his days as a player and coach at Duke, said that usually, star players in the conference got more calls in his experience, but Champagnie hasn’t.

“Justin has to understand that, for the rest of his career, this is how it’s going to be,” Capel said. “I’ve been around this league for a while … and those really, really good players … it’s harder to bump those guys. I’ll just say that.”

It was a diplomatic way for Capel to demand that his star forward get to the line more than he did on Sunday.

But despite their ineffectiveness on offense, the little things — defense and rebounding — kept the Panthers within striking distance. In the second half, Pitt found a rhythm on offense. It chipped away at the deficit slowly.

By the 10:23 mark of the second period, Pitt was down just eight. Then a short 7-2 burst, capped by a transition 3-pointer made by first-year forward William Jeffress, brought the Panthers to within a possession with little more than nine minutes to play.

Pitt couldn’t maintain that level of play through the end of the game. NC State did not play particularly well down the stretch, either, but forwards redshirt senior D.J. Funderburk and Hellems dominated the inside and covered for some sloppy play in the closing minutes.

Hellems finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds, while Funderburk recorded 13 points and just three rebounds. Funderburk only played 23 minutes after exiting in the second half with five fouls.

But the Panthers also never gave themselves much of a chance to complete the comeback. They fought hard, a fact for which their head coach praised them, but missed free throws — Pitt missed five of 10 attempts inside of the game’s final five minutes — doomed them.

Odukale was impressive in his first game as the primary ball handler. He scored 18 points on 6-11 shooting from the floor, grabbed five rebounds and dished out five assists to only one turnover.

“It feels good to be a lead point guard, but I’m just focused on winning right now,” Odukale said postgame. “So I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help my team win.”

Senior forward Terrell Brown turned in one the best games of his Pitt career. The 6-foot-11 big man recorded his first ever collegiate double-double — 11 points and 11 rebounds — to go along with two blocks in 33 minutes of action.

The Panthers will get little recovery time. They have less than 48 hours rest before welcoming Wake Forest to the Pete on Tuesday night. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m.