It wasn’t exactly Cleveland – people weren’t dancing in the streets, setting off fireworks, believing this day would never come – but fans of their beloved Pitt Panthers had reason to celebrate Wednesday night, Jan. 9.
It had been 690 days since the Pitt men’s basketball team had won a game in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Sure, the ACC isn’t the MAC – there’s Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, and other powers – but 690 days since their last win in-conference? For every Dukie, Tar Heel and Cavalier, there’s an equally-inferior ACC squad – a Boston College Eagle, a Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket, a Wake Forest Demon Deacon. And still, the Panthers couldn’t get through the front or back door to an ACC win all of last year (2017-18) and in the final conference games of the 2016-17 season?
So on this Wednesday night, just days into the new year, Pitt’s new crop of players – namely freshmen Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson – complete with a new attitude, in their second-ever game in the ACC, decided to just knock the whole stinkin’ door down.
And even though it came against college basketball powerhouse Louisville, even though, as Pitt coach Jeff Capel said postgame, the Cardinals “threw punches,” the Panthers stayed on their feet, and ultimately delivered their own knockout punch.
The final score read, 89-86, in overtime, in front of a sometimes-raucous crowd of 6,290 at the Petersen Events Center, against a Louisville team that had beaten Pitt in 12 straight games. McGowens and Johnson were in basketball diapers the last time the Panthers had beaten the Cardinals (2010).
But after the way these two freshman sensations played Wednesday, you can officially remove their training wheels – these guys are for real.
McGowens scored 33 points, Johnson added 21. But the point totals only tell half the story. It was apparent Louisville had the height advantage and the experience. But McGowens and Johnson know they have the quickness, the blow-by ability to reach the paint and score or strut to the free throw stripe. And time and time again, it was McGowens and Johnson with made-buckets via attacking the rim.
Louisville couldn’t stop them. I’m not sure anyone can.
But where Pitt’s newbies really shined on Wednesday was in their outside shooting. As a team, Pitt shot 31 percent from the field in their ACC opener, Jan. 5, a 25-point loss to North Carolina. Against the Cardinals, the Panthers shot 53 percent. McGowens, whose 33 points set a school record for points in a game by a freshman, shot 64 percent from the field (12 of 19). Johnson, who had a slow start with just 4 points and 3 fouls in the first half, exploded for 17 second-half points, including 2 three-point baskets.
Terrell Brown, a 6-foot-10 sophomore center, kept his end of the bargain with 5 of 7 shooting from the floor, 11 points total. Jared Wilson-Frame, the Pitt senior stalwart who suffered each of the previous 23 painful ACC losses, contributed 9 points. He hit 2 three-pointers, extending his streak to 26 games with at least 1 three-point field goal.
When you’re a freshman, you could have all the talent in the world; there’s still times when you’ll struggle with confidence, there’s games where you may begin to tire in the final moments, there’s times when a hostile road environment gets the best of you.
But there’s a point in the season when the rubber meets the road. The freshman realizes why he was so heavily recruited. He realizes that he’s the leading scorer on the team. He’s the one always in the media room, answering the questions from the nosy reporters. He realizes…this is my team.
The Cardinals just knew Pitt wouldn’t be able to make it to the finish line. After racking up 10 wins in non-conference play, the baby Panthers could only hang for nine minutes in the first half against the battle-tested Tar Heels before North Carolina took over for good just four days ago (Jan. 5).
But credit Pitt. They became battle-tested on Wednesday, even when Louisville hit a 2-point shot with under 30 seconds left to send the game into overtime, at 79-79. Pitt outscored the Cardinals, 10-7, in the extra five-minute period, McGowens’ coast-to-coast, contested, go-ahead layup with 38 seconds remaining proved to be the game-winner.
“I thought Jeff’s guys were a lot harder-playing than our team,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said postgame. “…They came out and played a lot harder than we did. The backcourt for Pitt was phenomenal. (The freshmen) had their way with us.”
Those who follow Pitt know that McGowens and Johnson are joined by fellow freshman guard Au’Diese Toney, who scored 6 points in 36 minutes Wednesday night. While talented, he hasn’t been as productive as McGowens and Johnson, and as the season progresses, Toney, I believe, will continue to be surpassed by the play of McGowens and the X-man. Toney’s role on the team is still important – to be truly competitive in the ACC, you’ll need at least a third player consistently averaging double figures in scoring, similar to No. 4 Virginia (Ty Jerome, 13.5 ppg), and Pitt’s next opponent on Saturday, Jan. 12, No. 15 N.C. State (C.J. Bryce, 11.3 ppg). After Johnson (16.5 ppg) and McGowens (13.8 ppg), Pitt does have a third player averaging at least 10 points per game, but it’s not even Toney – it’s Wilson-Frame (11.4). Toney is fourth on the Panthers in scoring at 9.6 points per contest. That should tell you something right there.
So it’s not exactly champagne-popping, block-the-highways-with-your-fanny time, like Cleveland Browns fans did when their beloved football team finally won their first game in 635 days, beating the New York Jets, 21-17, on Sept. 20, 2018, but defeating Louisville (10-5, 1-1) was still a huge obstacle overcome by Pitt. They hadn’t beaten an ACC opponent since Feb. 18, 2017, when they beat then-No. 17 Florida State, 80-66.
“Tonight was huge for us. I’d be lying if I tried to play it down. It was huge for us. It was huge for this program at this moment,” Capel said postgame. “These guys are fighting. One of the things that they are learning how to do is they’re learning that in order to win, you have to invest more. Everyone has to invest more. Everyone that is associated with our program has to be in it. This is not just a job where you can just be happy to be here. You have to invest. It has to be a passion.”
Of course, Pitt (11-4, 1-1) wants to win more than just one game in the ACC this year. With a healthy McGowens and Johnson at the helm, they’re bound to win more. Not only are these two freshmen invested in their craft, but they have the size, the talent to compete in this conference. And after beating Louisville, I believe they’ve finally come to the realization – this is their team.
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