West Virginia wins Backyard Brawl with Pitt, 69-59
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Xavier Johnson wasn’t sure if it was his gluteus muscles or his back that hurt after he landed hard on the WVU Coliseum floor Saturday afternoon.
Actually, it didn’t matter. Probably the most important lesson he learned in Pitt’s 69-59 loss to West Virginia was how to play through pain and adversity. West Virginia dished out plenty of both to the young Panthers in the 186th edition of the Backyard Brawl.
“As a young guy, you have to learn to play through pain, you have to fight through it,” Pitt coach Jeff Capel said. “Either you can play or you can’t play. If you’re out there, then you have to be able to push through it.”
Basketball became a collision sport before a crowd of 13,670, with West Virginia (6-3) using its superior height and famous full-court press to stretch its winning streak against Pitt to three — the first time that’s happened since 1998.
Johnson mostly endured the pain, playing 33 minutes and leading both teams with 21 points. Nice effort for the freshman point guard, but he also committed eight of Pitt’s season-high 24 turnovers.
“We have to live with it,” said Capel, mindful that Johnson’s presence usually gives Pitt its best chance to win.
The game was full of emotions, spills, fouls and turnovers. There were 49 fouls (26 by Pitt) and 50 turnovers (26 by West Virginia).
There also were:
• A few intense staredowns between opponents.
• WVU’s Andrew Gordon stepping over Pitt center Kene Chukwuka during one entanglement of bodies near the paint.
• Two offsetting technical fouls and a personal one on Capel, who spent some time in animated conversation with the officials.
“They foul the whole time, and the refs don’t call it,” Johnson said. “We had to play through it.”
Asked about the physicality of the game, Capel had no public complaints.
“The game was what it was, and it was very physical,” he said.
The Backyard Brawl returned to WVU Coliseum for the first time since 2012, and the Mountaineers were mostly dominant throughout.
Pitt (7-3), which has lost three of its past four games, had no answer for West Virginia’s four power forwards — 6-foot-11 Logan Routt and 6-8 Wesley Harris, Esa Ahmad and Sagaba Konate, who combined for 27 of WVU’s 41 rebounds and 11 blocks.
WVU coach Bob Huggins hinted prior to the game that Konate wouldn’t play because of a knee injury. But the 250-pound junior from Mali came off the bench to play 27 minutes, score 16 points and block seven shots to set a WVU career record with 191.
“I tricked you, didn’t I?” Huggins said.
Overall, Pitt missed 37 shots and the Mountaineers blocked almost a third (12). But Johnson and Trey McGowens, the other freshman guard, kept venturing into the paint with gusto.
“I’m not going to be scared of him,” Johnson said of Konate. “Trey kept going at him, too. I’m proud of him for doing that.”
Capel had no intention of blaming the loss on what appeared to be apparent: a bigger, stronger team playing on its home court against a feisty, but inexperienced opponent. Those turnovers frustrated him during and after the game.
“I thought some of them were forced. I thought some of them were unforced,” Capel said. “We had some travels, cut (the deficit) to five in the first half, and got a rebound and tried to outlet it to our center. That’s unforced.”
That turnover occurred during a 8 minute, 32-second span in which Pitt didn’t hit a field goal. Pitt went from a 14-11 lead to trailing 39-27 at halftime.
West Virginia led by as much as 17 in the second half, but Pitt twice cut the advantage to eight. Both times, missed shots stymied the comeback.
“We had to attack their pressure without turning the ball over in the full court and the half court,” Capel said. “And we needed to make shots. I thought Jared Wilson-Frame (who missed six of eight 3-point attemts) got some really good looks. We just couldn’t make them. But that’s what their pressure does to you sometimes. It speeds you up.”
Capel also was dissatisfied with WVU’s 41-33 rebounding edge, making no excuses for his opponent’s size advantage.
“We have to gang rebound, all five guys,” he said. “What it is it’s changing habits. The young guys don’t have the habits yet, and the returning guys don’t have it because it’s not something they did last year. They weren’t a good rebounding team last season.
“The effort was better, but we still have to pursue the basketball and go get it.”
Capel will keep pushing this team until it can overcome its deficiencies.
“We’re a young backcourt, we’re an inexperienced backcourt, but I tell you what, I wouldn’t trade them for anyone,” he said. “Our guys compete, they fight, they battle and they’re going to get better and better.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.