Kevin Gorman's Take 5: Pitt summons emotion to beat Duquesne
Pitt coach Jeff Capel was worried about how his Panthers would follow what he called a “gut-punching loss” at Iowa on Tuesday with the annual City Game against Duquesne on Friday night at PPG Paints Arena.
“I knew this game was going to require a lot of emotion because of the rivalry and things like that,” Capel said after Pitt’s 74-53 victory over the Dukes. “I thought it got the best of us early.”
The Pitt coach offered this advice to his team: Don’t let one game beat you twice.
Aside from the slow start, the Panthers didn’t allow their 69-68 loss to No. 14 Iowa to haunt them.
“I’m really proud of my team,” Capel said, “because we were able to summon the emotion after facing adversity for the first time this year.”
Duquesne wishes it wouldn’t let one team beat it twice, let alone continue its domination in the series, as Pitt won for the 19th time in the past 21 meeting, with 16of those victories coming by double digits.
1. Stop doubling down
The Panthers started off by double-teaming Michael Hughes, the 6-foot-8, 250-pound center who followed Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot from Akron.
When the Dukes sandwiched 3-pointers by Eric Williams Jr. and Sincere Carry around a thunderous dunk by Hughes for an 8-0 lead in the first 1 minute, 36 seconds, Capel changed his game plan.
“So we decided then just to play him straight up,” Capel said. “We wanted to take away the 3-point line and pressure them a little bit.”
Hughes finished with career highs of 20 points and 10 rebounds for his first career double-double, but it came at a cost.
2. Perimeter pressure
Despite the hot start, the Dukes shot 33.3 percent (19 of 57) from the field, including 5 for 24 from beyond the arc, as they struggled against the Panthers’ perimeter pressure.
Duquesne committed 22 turnovers, allowing the Panthers to score 16 fast-break points and 28 off turnovers.
“We played out of character a little bit, making silly mistakes,” Hughes said.
Pitt wasn’t much better, as the Panthers committed nine first-half turnovers in a performance Capel called “disjointed.”
But Pitt got scoring from its guards, as Trey McGowens finished with 14 points and three steals, Malik Ellison 13 points and five rebounds, Jared Wilson-Frame 12 points and five rebounds and Xavier Johnson 10 points with five assists.
Dambrot noted the Dukes can’t expect to win games with Carry making 1 of 9 shots from the field, Williams 3 of 10, Tavian Dunn-Martin 1 of 6 and Frankie Hughes 1 of 7.
“We’ve got to play better on the perimeter, simple as that,” Dambrot said. “We have to go back to the drawing board. … Our guard play has got to be better than that if we’re going to win.”
3. Getting defensive
Dambrot was impressed by the way Pitt plays under Capel, calling the Panthers “gritty” and “defensively built” and even going as far as to draw a comparison to Duke.
“They’re really good defensively, very good one through four guarding the ball,” Dambrot said. “They will win their shares of games because they play pretty good defense.”
That’s quite the contrast from the Panthers under Kevin Stallings, whom Dambrot described as offensive-oriented and “finesse.”
Williams Jr. was blunt in his assessment.
“They’re much improved with a different coach,” he said.
Dambrot complimented Capel for doing a good job of fitting pieces together with his holdovers and newcomers, a delicate issue Duquesne dealt with last season and this year.
“You can tell he’s imposed his will on them,” Dambrot said, “by who he’s playing and who he’s not playing.”
Look no further than Terrell Brown for evidence. The 6-11 sophomore center was considered a key player for Capel to keep on board. But he played only 15 minutes, scoring two points with four rebounds and two blocked shots. Instead, Capel has rewarded Kene Chukwuma for his hustle, as he finished with seven points and eight rebounds in 25 minutes.
4. Fresh faces
Pitt and Duquesne are separated on Forbes Avenue by one mile, but the rivalry is just beginning for the players involved.
Pitt starts three freshmen and had four starters playing in their first City Game. Duquesne starts two freshmen and had three starters playing in their first City Game.
Junior guard Mike Lewis II is the only holdover from the Dukes’ victory over Pitt in 2016. Pitt’s Jared Wilson-Frame talked about how the Panthers watched a hype video before the game last year to acquaint themselves with the history of the game.
But the players know each other, and that concerned Capel that the Panthers could allow that to affect their performance. Pitt trailed 15-9 before using a 9-0 run to take a lead it never surrendered.
No surprise Pitt’s upperclassmen started the rally, as graduate transfer Sidy N’Dir provided a calming influence by feeding Wilson-Frame for an 18-footer and then scoring on a jumper. Sophomore center Terrell Brown made a free throw, and St. John’s transfer Ellison scored on a driving layup for the lead.
“I thought we were out of it,” Capel said. “Sometimes, you can want something so bad, and it just messes with you because you’re not together, you’re not connected. Things can turn into individual agendas, me against this guy or things like that. I thought we were dealing with a lot of that stuff early in the game. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised with the start.”
5. Budding rivalry
This City Game was notable not just for its turnovers — Duquesne had 22, to 13 assists, while Pitt had 15, to 12 assists — but its turnover.
Both rosters have undergone major overhauls the past two seasons, but both schools should have hope they have found coaches who are sound strategists and relentless recruiters.
The presence of Capel and Dambrot on the sidelines could make this an interesting rivalry, one in which Pitt has an edge because of the frequency it plays before big crowds in big arenas in the ACC.
“The more times we’re in these games,” Dambrot said, “the better we’ll play.”
Capel knows something about rivalries. He played for and coached at Duke against North Carolina. He coached at VCU against Old Dominion. He coached at Oklahoma against Texas.
The City Game, for all of its history, doesn’t compare.
But there was an announced crowd of 12,246 at PPG Paints Arena, with students standing and cheering and fans seated in the third deck. The game had a good atmosphere for the first 30 minutes. “The crowd was terrific,” Capel said. “You could feel the energy in the building. It was really cool.”
What would be cool is if the more times Pitt and Duquesne play, the better the City Game will become.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.