Champagnie’s grit, savvy beyond his years


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Justin Champagnie (11) reacts following a basket against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. – AP

MIAMI -- “I mean, just gotta stay poised and just be a good teammate and play for the team.” 

Justin Champagnie acts like this is no big deal.

That quote up there was Champagnie's response when I asked him how he — a freshman facing North Carolina for the first time, on the road, no less — handled his emotions. Champagnie filled up the stat sheet for 22 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and two steals, but bigger than that, he sank four of five three-pointers in a comeback second half that helped lead Pitt to a 73-65 victory.

That's after going 0 for 2 from deep — ice cold — in the first half, one game after shooting 1 for 6 from deep in the team's loss to Wake Forest at home.

“We came out of the locker room, and coach was like, ‘Just step up and knock down a great shot,'" Champagnie said. "And once the first one went in, I was just like, ‘Oh. Keep going.’”

Yeah, just keep going. It's no big deal, after all, to help propel your team to its first ACC road victory in nearly three full years, the last coming Feb. 8, 2017, at Boston College.

Last season, it was Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson, two freshmen sensations, giving life to an upstart Pitt men's basketball program. Johnson averaged 15.5 points, 4.5 assists and 4 rebounds per game last season, while McGowens added 11.6 points, 2 assists and 3 rebounds per contest.

This season, it's Champagnie — 11.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1 steal per game — providing that extra layer of offense to the team. The squad still revolves around Johnson and McGowens, no doubt.

"Coach told us as the game goes on, you have to keep making the right plays," Johnson was saying when asked about opposing defenses locking onto himself and McGowens. "Because their scouting report and other teams’ scouting reports, it’s [to] stop me and Trey. We gotta know that, me and Trey gotta know that, and we just gotta trust others to make shots.”

However, it's all glued together by players like Champagnie, who has risen to the task, averaging 17 points per game in the team's last four, a 3-1 stretch, while contributing hot shooting from beyond the arc. That threat from deep — combined with the same from Ryan Murphy — makes everybody's life easier.

"Our guys need Xavier and Trey to create for them," Jeff Capel was saying at his Friday press conference at Petersen Events Center. " ... They have to understand that they need Justin knocking down shots or finishing plays inside. They need Murphy knocking down shots."

Beyond the shooting, though, did you catch that other part from Capel on Champagnie in that quote? Watch just one Pitt basketball game, and that "finishing plays inside" part stands out even more than the outside shooting.

Champagnie showcases a strong understanding of opposing defenses and a knack for exploiting weaknesses. You'll see something like this almost every time he touches the court:

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