Gueye shines as men’s basketball routs Gannon in exhibition, 89-64


Hannah Wilson | Staff Photographer

Femi Odukale (2) dribbles the ball forward in the Pitt men’s basketball exhibition against Gannon University.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

An unrestricted crowd occupied the stands Monday night at the Petersen Events Center for the first time since Feb. 26, 2020, to watch Pitt men’s basketball meet Gannon in an exhibition game.

The crowd was far from a sellout for the opener of the 2021-22 campaign, but returned some life to an arena that felt empty during the COVID-19-affected 2020 season.

“For a lot of our guys, this was their first time under the lights [at the Pete], so I think you saw a lot of guys get better as the game went on and do some things as they were able to relax,” head coach Jeff Capel said. “There were nerves, which is to be expected, and is why games like this are good for us.”

With so many new faces on the roster, how this Pitt team would mesh together remained an open question, and Monday’s exhibition provided some answers. Supported by the scoring of Pitt’s two lead guards, graduate transfer forward Mouhamadou Gueye’s double-double and a second-half spark by sophomore wing William Jeffress, the Panthers cruised to a 89-64 victory over Gannon University at the Petersen Events Center on Monday night. 

The Panthers initially looked strong in a lot of areas that had been a cause for concern in the past. They hit on many of Capel’s tenets — rebounding, energetic perimeter defense and active movement on offense. But their energy quickly fell off, according to the head coach. 

“I thought we had some moments where we played really well defensively,” Capel said. “But we have to be able to sustain it.”

Facing an undersized Gannon frontcourt, Pitt made it a point to feed sophomore big man John Hugley on offense, running plays with the goal of finding the 6-foot-9, 280-pound forward on the block against smaller Gannon players. But the Golden Knights reinforced their backline with double teams, and forced the inexperienced Hugley into four first-half turnovers. 

Hugley was able to draw fouls, but didn’t make the Knights pay. He shot just 2-7 from the free throw line and Pitt only made 10 of 17 from the charity stripe. Meanwhile the Knights kept pace with eight points off of six Panther turnovers.

Holding just a nine-point lead at halftime, there was an uneasy feeling around the Pete. Pitt was winning but not as comfortably as expected against a Division II opponent. They ultimately responded with a dominant opening second half. 

The Knights were within striking distance at 49-41 at the 13:25 mark of the second half. Jeffress subbed in after Hugley knocked down two free throws — the first two points of a 13-2 run that put the game away.

After redshirt junior guard Braden Olsen came back with a driving layup, Jeffress scored six points in a span of 20 seconds, pushing the Pitt lead back to 14 as the midway point of the second half neared. 

For a player whose offense had lagged behind defensive skills, that run was a good omen. 

“[Jeffress] made a big three for us in the second half to ignite us,” Capel said postgame. “I think that’s the biggest thing for [his development] — shooting good shots and learning how to knock down shots.”

The Panthers went on to score eight of the next 11 points and extend the difference to as many as 20. From there, the result was never in doubt. Pitt ran away in the second and closed out the comfortable victory with walk-ons on the court. 

Gueye was dominant for each of his 27 minutes on the floor. The former America East Defensive Player of the Year recorded four blocks and three steals, but also demonstrated a diverse array of offensive skills that came as a surprise to his coaches when he first arrived in Oakland. He scored 17 points on just 12 shots and hauled in 10 rebounds.

Capel said the team saw a talented player when scouting Gueye, but didn’t expect that he would provide the kind of offensive lift that he has through limited game action.

“I thought he was a really talented man,” Capel said. “Obviously the thing that stood out was defense. … We thought that, when we started working with him, that he was a little bit better offensively than we thought and he’s really put in a lot of work on that side of it.”

Redshirt junior Ithiel Horton and sophomore Femi Odukale — who will carry the load as primary ball-handlers in the absence of injured graduate transfer guard Jamarius Burton — aided Gueye with the burden of scoring and handled the ball efficiently. They combined for 36 points on 12-26 shooting to go along with six assists and no turnovers.

Both Capel and Horton credited Odukale with helping the Panthers overcome some pregame nerves. Horton said Odukale eased a tense locker room before Monday’s game.

“Before the game, everybody was so tense and nervous, but [Odukale] just knows how to ease everybody,” Horton said. “He got everybody laughing and got everybody moving.”

Now the stakes get a bit higher for Pitt. The exhibition doesn’t count for anything official, but in eight days they start playing for keeps. 

The Panthers open the regular season next Tuesday at home against the Citadel. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. from the Petersen Events Center and will be broadcast on ACC Network Extra.