Sibande’s 23 points sink Demon Deacons on Senior Day

Senior+forward+Terrell+Brown%2C+the+lone+player+honored+on+Senior+Day+at+the+Pete+on+Tuesday%2C+opened+the+scoring+with+a+dunk.

Pamela Smith | Staff Photographer

Senior forward Terrell Brown, the lone player honored on Senior Day at the Pete on Tuesday, opened the scoring with a dunk.

By Stephen Thompson and Dalton Coppola

Pitt men’s basketball head coach Jeff Capel was as visibly relaxed on Tuesday night as he had been in weeks. After what he called “the longest week” he could remember, during which his team was mired in a four-game losing streak and two of his best players transferred, Capel said he was “really, really proud” of how his team had responded.

“I think they enjoy being around each other and they have a bond because of the adversity they have faced together,” Capel said. “Again, I don’t pay attention to what is said, written, or talked about because I’m in it, but [the players] do and I think these guys feel like they have something to prove.”

Pitt (10-10 overall, 6-9 ACC) put the last week’s trials behind them and put forth one of its strongest efforts of the season, particularly on the defensive end, in a 70-57 win over Wake Forest (6-14 overall, 3-14 ACC). Capel reached deep into his bench and pulled out a complete team effort in the nearly wire-to-wire victory.

Pitt was able to flex its muscles on the inside against the undersized Demon Deacons. Senior forward Terrell Brown, the lone player honored on Senior Day at the Pete, opened the scoring with a dunk.

Following the game, Capel praised Brown’s commitment throughout what is popularly considered to be the lowest point in program history. Brown has lasted through two coaches and seemingly endless losing streaks, and he’s earned such a rosy ending at the Pete.

“I’m really happy for Terell,” Capel said. “For him to end his last year at home, compared to how his last game ended his freshman year. It is an incredible journey that he’s been on and I’m fortunate enough to be a part of that journey with him.”

Brown contributed to the Panthers dominance inside. Pitt owned advantages of 14-4 on points in the paint, plus-nine in total rebounds and four nothing in blocks.

But a rash of turnovers plagued Pitt. Seven first-half giveaways led to six Deacon points. In a game where scoring came sparingly, those buckets were key, according to Capel. It was one of the few areas he thought the Panthers were lacking.

Meanwhile, the Deacons looked to attack Pitt from the outside early. Wake Forest unleashed 19 first-half 3-pointers and made six of them. While 32% is not a particularly stellar mark from distance, the combination of a high volume of 3-pointers plus the Panthers’ inability to take care of the basketball kept the count tight.

Junior guard Davien Williamson led the way for Wake Forest in the opening frame. He scored eight points, nailed a pair of 3-pointers and came up with three assists to pace the Deacons in each category.

Graduate guard Ian DuBose made one of two free throws with half a second left in the period to cut Pitt’s lead to the slimmest of margins, 30-29, at the intermission. But the second half was not nearly as competitive.

The Panthers grew their lead slowly from three to five to eventually seven by the midway point of the second half, and it began on the defensive end.

It was not just the players on the court who brought frenzied energy, but the entire bench as well. Pitt baited the Demon Deacons into nine second-half turnovers and a lowly 0.875 points per possession, compared to their 0.906 mark from the first half.

Offensively for Pitt, senior guard Nike Sibande, who said postgame that he decided to forgo traditional Senior Day honors because he is still weighing a potential return to college next year, was the centerpiece of a Panther offense trying to overcome the loss of two of the team’s three best scorers.

He scored 23 points on 7-13 shooting from the field and 3-5 from 3-point range — by far his best offensive performance of the season — and narrowly missed a double-double with nine rebounds. He also dished out four assists for good measure.

But postgame, Sibande praised the team’s performance instead of his own.

“We just bought in,” Sibande said. “Everybody’s just bought in and we all got one common goal. So, our communication [has been great]. I think that’s a big piece, if your communication is on point. Then you’re … more likely come out on top.”

Sophomore forward Justin Champagnie was once again quietly brilliant. With Sibande’s scoring in the foreground, Champagnie recorded his ACC-leading 13th double-double of the season — 20 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks — in the win.

Next up, the Panthers will conclude their regular season this weekend. They will travel to Clemson for a noon tipoff on Saturday, and after that will await final seeding for the ACC Tournament.

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