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Panthers insider: Pitt shows character in aftermath of Johnson's injury

| Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, 10:12 p.m.
Georgia Tech forward Kammeon Holsey (24) battles Pitt guard Cameron Wright (3) and forward Talib Zanna (42) for a loose ball Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, in Atlanta.
Pitt's Lamar Patterson (21), Talib Zanna (42) and James Robinson (0) react towards the end of their game against N.C. State on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, in Raleigh, N.C.

Georgia Tech could have been a trap game for Pitt, given the distractions around the Panthers.

They returned to the national rankings, a showdown with No. 2 Syracuse for first place in the ACC awaited, and they are without Durand Johnson for the season.

Where some teams are a cast of characters, these Panthers showed by beating the Yellow Jackets, 81-74, that they are a team with character.

“We've been persevering all year,” Pitt junior shooting guard Cameron Wright said. “It's just another obstacle we have to overcome.”

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon knows from experience Johnson's injury could have a positive or negative impact on the Panthers (16-1, 4-0 ACC), who are ranked No. 22 in the Associated Press poll.

In 2007-08, Pitt persevered despite losing senior small forward Mike Cook for the season to an injury similar to Johnson's — a torn ACL and meniscus — against Duke at Madison Square Garden.

The next game, point guard Levance Fields suffered a broken foot against Dayton. Fields returned later that season, leading the Panthers to the Big East Tournament title and the NCAA second round.

But losing point guard Tray Woodall to a groin strain and abdominal tear in December 2011 proved devastating. Pitt lost eight consecutive games, starting Big East play 0-7, and missed the NCAA Tournament for the only time in Dixon's tenure.

“We've had this before — we've had a lot, actually — where we've lost starters in the middle of the year,” Dixon said. “It's happened way too often in the last four or five years. But we've handled it well, for the most part. We've got to limit it to one guy, that's for sure.”

Johnson's case is different.

He's not a starter but was an instant energizer off the bench who was a dangerous 3-point shooter.

After the Georgia Tech game, the Panthers talked about how it would take a team effort to replace not only Johnson's scoring touch but also his infectious enthusiasm.

“We definitely missed Durand,” senior swingman Lamar Patterson said. “We missed his points. We missed his energy. Just the character he brings to the team, we're definitely missing that right now.”

Dixon said he believes the challenge for Pitt will be to overcome his absence by replicating Johnson's passion instead of his point production.

“There's a void, but there can also be a way of inspiring or encouraging,” Dixon said. “Durand's personality is a big part of our team, as well as his basketball attributes. I think we'll fill that vacuum, that hole. I told our guys, ‘I want you talking. I want you playing with passion. That's the only thing you need to do differently.' ”

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