The Citadel routs Pitt, 78-63, in season opener

Forward+John+Hugley+%2823%29+and+another+player+attempt+to+catch+a+rebound.

Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Forward John Hugley (23) and another player attempt to catch a rebound.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

In the span of little more than a month, the Panthers endured knee injuries to a pair of presumed rotation players — one of which was sidelined for the season — and the indefinite suspension of their leading returning scorer and best 3-point shooter.

And as a result, Pitt replaced them in the starting lineup with a first-year that hadn’t played a real game of competitive basketball in two years and a sophomore that struggled to produce last year in limited minutes.

Tuesday night’s opener vs. The Citadel was supposed to provide some respite from the attrition that had defined this team for the past seven months. But instead of the ceremonious blowout that everyone expected, Pitt left the floor defeated.

Pitt (0-1 overall, 0-0 ACC) dropped the 2021-22 season opener to The Citadel (1-0 overall, 0-0 Southern Conference) on Tuesday night 78-63. In front of a crowd of more than 7,500 spectators, the largest to occupy the stands of the Petersen Events Center since the end of the 2020 season, the Bulldogs ran Pitt out of the building.

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Head coach Jeff Capel said The Citadel played smarter and sharper than his Panthers. 

“I don’t think they played harder than us,” Capel said. “I thought they were smarter than us. I thought they executed. … It’s not from lack of effort. It’s not from not playing hard. … But we have to be better.”

This game was not close. After the Panthers scored the opening bucket on a long two-pointer from sophomore point guard Femi Odukale, the Bulldogs nailed three triples as part of a 14-0 run. Capel burned his first timeout before the media timeout, with his team down 14-2 and mired in an 0-5 shooting streak.

Pitt tried to mount a counter attack. First-year wing Nate Santos, making his first career start in his first career game, hit a 3-pointer on his first career shot and Odukale finished a layup through contact to cut the deficit to 10. From there, the Bulldogs hit consecutive 3-pointers.

Then, after collecting a defensive rebound, graduate forward Mouhamadou Gueye passed the ball to a Citadel guard while falling out of bounds. After three short-range passes in the paint, junior forward Brady Spence found enough open space for a layup to put the Bulldogs up 18 at the 12:39 mark of the first half.

The Citadel shot from distance early and often. First-year guard Jason Roache, who shot 7-13 from distance, was the prime offender. Odukale said the Bulldogs’ execution running offensive sets combined with Pitt’s poor communication led to the barrage of triples from Roache and his teammates.

“The way they were disciplined setting screens, everybody was playing together on that team,” Odukale said.

As the first half wore on, Pitt began to find something resembling a rhythm on offense, but the Bulldogs kept applying pressure with their run-and-gun offense.

Sophomore forward John Hugley put home a dunk off the oop from senior guard Onyebuchi Ezeakudo. Then sophomore guard Brent Davis responded with a free throw. Noah Collier slammed home a transition dunk, then Spence beat him on the other end with a spin-move in the post. Hugley nailed a jumper, and then junior forward Stephen Clark scored. Santos nailed a mid-range jumper, and Moffe answered with a short jumper on the next possession.

The Bulldogs kept matching the Panthers’ run with big shot after big shot, but head coach Duggar Baucom thought his team won the game on the defensive end.

“I just kept yelling at them to get stops because I thought we’d win it on the defensive end,” Baucom said. “It was just kind of persevering. At every timeout, I’d look them straight in the eye and I could see that they believed. They believed from the first media [timeout].”

With Pitt trailing by 12 at halftime, Hugley tried to take the game into his own hands.

Forward John Hugley (23) scores during the Pitt vs. The Citadel men’s basketball game. (Pamela Smith | Visual Editor)

The man that The Citadel’s head coach called “a monster” and “a beast” made two layups before inciting the crowd with an old-fashioned 3-point play to bring the Panthers within nine — 41-50 — with 17:14 left to play in the second half.

Hugley was dominant in the longest outing of his career — 27 points, 10 rebounds in 35 grueling minutes. The young big said postgame that he wanted to answer his team’s desperate need for scoring.

“I started off slow but I felt like my teammates needed me,” Hugley said. “So I just did more, brought some more to the table.”

As Hugley heated up, The Citadel cooled off significantly from 3-point distance, missing 17 of 20 attempts during one stretch spanning the end of the first and beginning of the second half. But despite the relative ineffectiveness of the Bulldog offense, Pitt could not find any way to claw back within striking distance.

Nothing went right for the Panthers. They didn’t shoot well — 38% from the field and 12% on 3-pointers — and struggled to rebound against a smaller opponent. Pitt also missed close-range shots with alarming frequency and free throws at an unsurprisingly mediocre rate.

The Bulldogs were led by none other than their star forward, graduate student Hayden Brown. No matter which Panther defenders hounded Brown underneath, he continued to play like the reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year. The skilled forward overcame a size disadvantage to score and distribute at a high level. Brown finished with 19 points on 8-18 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds and delivered four assists.

No one had high expectations for this Pitt team even before losing two starters in the span of a week, but Tuesday’s loss sunk the Panthers to a new low point, with a daunting trip to Morgantown following close behind.

Pitt is back in action on Friday night against rival West Virginia. Tip off against the Mountaineers is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. and will air on ESPNU.