Pitt reserves spark winning run in 63-59 win over Towson

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AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Pittsburgh’s Daniel Oladapo (4) passes the ball as Towson’s Cameron Holden defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Pittsburgh.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

For the second consecutive game, the Pitt men’s basketball pulled through in clutch moments. As the clock wound down, the Panthers tightened up, made timely plays and found a way to win. No, it wasn’t pretty, but Friday night’s victory was nonetheless “huge” for Pitt, according to head coach Jeff Capel. 

“I’m really proud of our guys,” Capel said. “This was a big win for us, to be able to scratch and claw, to make some plays down the stretch. I thought our defense, from the 16-minute mark of the second half, was outstanding.”

For the second consecutive game, Pitt (2-2 overall, 0-0 ACC) started slow, got a lift in the second half from a sophomore forward and “won ugly,” 63-59, over Towson on Friday night at the Petersen Events Center. With their two best players on the bench, Panther reserves started a second half run that put them in front and animated the home crowd. They rode that energy the rest of the way, locking down defensively on the way to their second win of the season. 

Pitt followed a sleepy first half offensive performance with an inauspicious start to the second period. Towson came out of the break already up three, then scored six of the half’s first eight points, taking control of the game with a seven point advantage. 

After starting sophomores Femi Odukale and John Hugley — Pitt’s two leading scorers — each committed turnovers during Towson’s post-half burst, Capel turned to his bench. Odukale and Horton’s short rest turned into wholesale minutes on the bench, while reserves ignited an 11-2 run that reclaimed a narrow lead. 

“They just weren’t playing well,” Capel said of Odukale and Hugley. 

Pittsburgh’s William Jeffress, in white, and Towson’s Jason Gibson (11) battle for a loose ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

The Pitt reserves, represented by a lineup of senior guard Jamarius Burton, first-year wing Nate Santos, graduate forward Dan Oladapo, and sophomore forwards William Jeffress and Noah Collier, flipped a seven-point deficit into a two-point advantage in under six minutes. 

Collier, who had struggled to find minutes through little more than one year in college basketball, posted career-highs in points, played the second most minutes of any game in his career and shot 100% from the field on Friday night. Collier capped Pitt’s key streak early in the second half with an old-fashioned 3-point play that tied the game at 51.  

After sitting on the bench for almost all of the first half, Collier needed to get hot quickly and he gave the Panthers exactly what they needed — the speed and hustle necessary for capitalizing on defensive stops. 

“Coach [Capel] always tells me to be aggressive and bring a lot of energy everytime I get the chance to step on the court,” Collier said. “So that’s what I made sure to do today, without a doubt. … When I got my opportunity, I made sure to take advantage of it.”

The Panthers started sleepily, particularly on offense. Unable to find much room down low for leading scorer, sophomore forward John Hugley, the Panthers were forced to look for shots from distance. They found little success.   

Against a packed paint in the first half, the Panthers shot just 32% from the floor and committed seven turnovers. The Towson defense sent multiple defenders to any Panther that caught the ball in the paint, leaving open space beyond the 3-point line. 

But like they did on Tuesday against UNC Wilmington, Pitt clawed its way back on the defensive end. After collecting a couple of stops, Burton went to work on the other end. He hit his first shot with more than 17:19 left in the game and was up to nine points 11 minutes later. 

Pitt was able to soften the defense and create lanes for Burton thanks to the best shooting night of Santos’ young career. He knocked down four of eight attempts from 3-point territory and ended the night leading his team in scoring with 14 points.

Odukale eventually returned to the game late in the second and hit a key triple to extend a narrow Pitt advantage. That was his lone made field goal, but it was essential nonetheless.  

“I thought Femi, after sitting for a while, came in and made a huge [3-pointer], made a free throw, had a huge blocked shot and had good energy, positive energy,” Capel said. “He shared it with everyone else.”

Oladapo, making his second consecutive start, tallied 11 points, four rebounds and two assists in 24 minutes of action. He, Santos and Burton were the only Panthers to post double-digit scoring totals. 

Pitt will get its longest break of the season so far — five days — between Friday’s win over Towson and a Nov. 24 date with Vanderbilt. Tip off between the Panthers and Commodores on Wednesday night is scheduled for 9 p.m. and will air on the ACC Network.

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