“[Justin Champagnie], in high school, was more of a mid-range, around-the-basket slasher,” Jeff Capel was saying after Pitt’s 79-53 win over Binghamton on Dec. 20. “That’s who he was. We’ve tried to expand and get him to play a little bit more on the perimeter and to be comfortable shooting threes. We need to get him where he’s making threes consistently now.”
Hey, coach … Is this consistent enough?
Bang. Bang. Bangity freaking bang.
That’s Champagnie breathing fire from beyond the arc one game after Capel’s comments, a roller-coaster 87-79 Pitt win Monday afternoon to move them to 10-3 on the year. Champagnie, who was 5 for 37 from three-point land coming into this contest, went 5 for 6 (83 percent) in this one, pacing his squad with 21 points, six rebounds and three steals in all.
“It feels good,” Champagnie was saying of his hot start — two threes and Pitt’s first eight points total — after the game. “My confidence just shoots up when that happens.”
Did you catch that part where Champagnie had made just five threes coming into this game? And Capel had previously acknowledged Champagnie’s struggles from deep with a chuckle, as if to say, “We all know he hasn’t been good there”?
Yeah, it wasn’t a secret, so this development today against Canisius was crucial for Champagnie, and surprising as it might’ve been to fans and media alike, his teammates and coaches felt it coming. Champagnie said he’s been putting up shots after hours, before hours, at all hours — at least 100 per day, by his guess — in an effort to develop his offense beyond 20 feet from the hoop.
“I was shooting with him [Au’Diese Toney] last night,” Champagnie said with a point across the podium to his teammate.
This game didn’t end with just Champagnie on the offensive side, though. Ryan Murphy went 5 for 9 (4 for 7 — 57 percent — from three) for 16 points, while Xavier Johnson matched that with 16 of his own on 50 percent shooting and 100 percent (6 for 6) from the free-throw line. Trey McGowens posted 14 and Toney registered 13 to round out the double-digit onslaught from Pitt.
It was the first time five players scored in double digits in one game on the year, and it wasn’t just that five players hit that mark but how those five players hit the mark.
Check it out for yourself:
Champagnie did a little bit of everything and showed off that work-in-progress stroke from deep. Murphy tore it up from downtown while adding two free throws and a breakaway layup. Johnson and McGowens slashed and dashed to the rim, creating their own shots and getting to the line for 17 of the team’s 33 free-throw attempts. Toney scrapped for three offensive boards and added a spotless 7 for 7 performance from the charity stripe, thanks to his hustle and determination. And that particular play up there — a hard-fought offensive board, one dribble and a strong take for two — is pretty much the most Au’Diese Toney sequence possible.
“I feel like I’ve been struggling so far shooting, so I just do the other aspects to get myself going, just rebounding and getting easy [layups] and stuff like that,” Toney was saying after this one.
When you look at this Panthers squad top to bottom, this is all exactly what you want to see offensively. Its players did what they do in this one, playing to their respective strengths, and it was a step forward in the young squad developing and finding its identity. With conference play just around the corner, putting in your best offensive performance of the season on a noon tipoff after a 10-day holiday break encourages on every level.
“It really felt like AAU days,” Toney said, Champagnie nodding his head a seat over. “You’re used to getting up early in the morning and playing ball.”
OK, notice how this entire article’s been about the offense so far? That’s by design. I needed a second to gather my thoughts on that defensive performance, the worst of Pitt’s season to date. There’s a reason they only won by eight despite all that.
Let’s buckle up and dig into that now …
• “Thank goodness we were able to play some offense today.”
Well, that summary was easy. Capel nailed it with his opening words in his post-game press conference.
“He [Capel] came into the locker room and he told everybody we gotta come out and just play defense and rebound the ball basically,” Champagnie added of Capel’s halftime adjustments. “We don’t want to come back to the locker room with sad faces. We had no choice but to pick it up.”
You can point to the season-high 79 points allowed or the fact that Canisius, like Pitt, put five scorers in double digits, but there’s one stat above all that tells the story of this one:
Canisius 17, Pitt 13.
That’s the offensive rebounding total for the game, and it’s singlehandedly why Canisius stayed alive throughout. Canisius head coach Reggie Witherspoon complimented Pitt’s ability to crash the offensive glass, which felt strange since, you know, his team did it even better. I had to follow up there:
“Energy” doesn’t show up on a stat sheet. But if it did, Canisius might’ve pulled the upset in this one, which is wild, considering all the good offensive mojo flowing for the Panthers. Champagnie knew it, too.
“I just think that we came into the game, we [weren’t] mentally right,” he said.
He went on to talk about the “fire” and the preparation, but it all boiled down to one thing: Canisius wanted this one, and Pitt wasn’t 100 percent buttoned up and ready for that type of effort. Their offense and their own ability to bounce back and to find a rhythm late saved ’em, but make no mistake: This was an unconventional win for this 2019-20 Panthers crew.
“We really have to work harder as we move forward to address that,” Capel said of his team’s effort on the defensive glass.
• That problem might just linger throughout the season, too.
“We have to understand that all five guys have to do it,” Capel said. “We do not have a dominant rebounder. That’s not … I’ve coached dominant rebounders. We don’t have that.”
• Don’t get me wrong here: Credit Canisius’ offense in the equation, too. They moved the ball well and generated quality looks, shooting 48 percent on the day.
“I think against the zone we were able to move the ball and get it into some areas that allowed us to find open people,” Witherspoon said.
• Particularly, credit Malik Johnson, Canisius’ senior guard who went for 14 points, four rebounds and seven assists while playing all 40 minutes of this one.
Capel certainly recognized his impact on the game, and he showered praise upon him in the post-game press conference:
• While the stats will point to Champagnie and Murphy having the best games, both McGowens and Johnson came up clutch down the stretch, when it mattered most for the dub. Getting the ball in their hands was 100 percent by design, a point confirmed by Capel when I asked him about just that:
• In his return to action after missing eight straight games dating back to Nov. 15, Gerald Drumgoole played four minutes, scoring four points while adding two rebounds and two turnovers on 1 for 2 shooting and 2 for 2 from the line.
While he scored on his first touch of the game, an errant behind-the-back pass on a fastbreak might just stand out a little more, a point not lost on Capel.
“I thought he did well except for the one pass that he tried to make.”
• In the mood for an overflowing abundance of respect and admiration? Listen to Witherspoon talk about Capel for a solid three minutes:
• Pitt matched a season-best 50-percent performance (26 for 52) from the field in this one, scoring a season-high 87 points in the process. They’re now 6-1 under Capel when scoring 80 or more in a game.
• Eric Hamilton played just four minutes, giving way to a combination of Terrell Brown and Abdoul Karim Coulibaly down low.
“Karim just brought energy. I thought the energy level picked up when he was in,” Capel said.
Nothing more to it than that. Hamilton scored zero points and registered just two rebounds, getting beaten on the glass repeatedly in this one. Capel made a decision to switch it up instead.
• Not that Coulibaly (zero points on 0 for 3 shooting, four rebounds in 15 minutes) or Brown (three points on 1 for 5 shooting, four rebounds, four blocks in 21 minutes) was much better. Without the stellar guard play in this one, Pitt loses badly. But they were slightly better than Hamilton, and that’s all Capel needed to see.
• Pitt never trailed in the game.
• The Panthers registered a season-high 26 made free throws, shooting 79 percent (26 for 33) from the line in all.
• Monday’s noon tipoff was 100 percent intentional in this one as well, Capel confirmed after the game. Pitt will have five noon tipoffs in ACC play, and Capel wanted his team to be well adjusted when the time came for those.
• Is Pitt any better than last year heading into conference play? They had exactly the same record last year before conference play kicked off, so what does Capel see?
“I don’t have a rear-view mirror, so I don’t look at last year,” he said. “I concentrate on what we’re doing right now and where we are right now, and so I think we’re a better team than we were last year. I think we have more experience, the core of our team will go into the meat of ACC play with it not being their first time.”
• Oh, Canisius College is in Buffalo, something only 36 percent of my Twitter followers knew without the help of Google. I didn’t know either. Learn something new every day.
THE STARTING LINEUPS
For Capel’s Panthers:
Xavier Johnson, guard
Trey McGowens, guard
Justin Champagnie, guard
Au’diese Toney, forward
Eric Hamilton, forward
And for Witherspoon’s Golden Griffins:
Armon Harried, guard
Malik Johnson, guard
Akrum Ahemed, guard
Scott Hitchon, forward
Jacco Fritz, forward
Pitt enters conference play Saturday at the Pete against Wake Forest. That one starts at noon, and I’ll be on the scene with all the coverage.
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