Pitt puts up little resistance in ACC opener vs. North Carolina
Still four months shy of his 19th birthday, Pitt freshman Trey McGowens heard the noise in Petersen Events Center, felt the vibrations of a sellout crowd of 12,508 and never forgot what team he and his teammates were playing.
“I was a little jittery going out,” he said. “Coach had to tell me to settle down. We were just anxious going into it.”
Pitt received a full, unsavory dose of what competing in the ACC is like Saturday when No. 15 North Carolina rolled to an easy — at least after the first eight minutes — 85-60 victory.
Pitt (10-4, 0-1) trailed by as many as 33 points with 6 minutes, 34 seconds left in the game, a distinct departure from the nonconference portion of the season when the worst loss was by 10 points at West Virginia.
This was reminiscent of some of the darkest days of the Kevin Stallings era, with Pitt going 6:39 in the first half without scoring. At one point, Pitt shot 0 for 11 from the field over a time span of 10:26, the Tar Heels turning a 15-14 lead into a 41-20 runaway before halftime.
Yet, Pitt coach Jeff Capel didn’t appear discouraged or angry after the game. If anything, he hoped to use the loss as a learning tool for what it takes for his young team to play in front of big crowd (even if it’s friendly) against one of the nation’s best teams.
North Carolina (11-3, 1-0) is an outstanding team with shooters, rebounders and depth, but four other ACC teams — No. 1 Duke, No. 4 Virginia, No. 9 Florida State and No. 10 Virginia Tech — are ranked higher than the Tar Heels, and N.C. State is No. 18. This game represented Pitt only dipping its toes in the turbulent waters of the ACC.
“We lost to a really, really, really good basketball team that played well, especially that stretch the last 12 minutes of the first half,” Capel said.
“I thought that we played very well the first eight minutes of the game,” he said. “We had incredible energy to start. Then, we went through a period from the 11:50 mark. It was a while when we could not score. I actually thought we got some good looks that we just missed, and then I thought we pressed.”
Even that didn’t bother the coach.
“It was coming from a good place, but we tried to do, ‘I have to make a play. I have to make something happen.’ That’s where we have to grow as a team.”
Capel is playing with a three-man bench, and he admitted fatigue was a factor, especially considering how excited players were before the game and in the first eight minutes.
“I thought our energy made us a little bit tired,” he said. “I thought we ran out of gas during that (North Carolina rally), too.”
McGowens led Pitt in scoring with 17 points, but 10 of those came from the foul line, a product of his willingness and fearlessness in attacking the rim.
“Trey got to the free-throw line (for 16 shots),” Capel said. “I thought that was really good for a freshman to do that. I thought X (freshman Xavier Johnson, 14 points) got in there and made some good plays.”
Pitt shot 30.6 from the field, missing 17 of 19 3-point shots. The Panthers had no answer for North Carolina’s zone defense.
“It made them try to become shooters,” said North Carolina’s 6-foot-9 guard Cameron Johnson, a former Pitt player who made a triumphant return with 15 points, nine rebounds and no turnovers in 30 minutes. “It took away driving lanes. That’s what we wanted to do. I think we did a pretty good job in the zone.”
Pitt’s Malik Elllison, who came off the bench to score 10 points, said the team learned it must find the resilience to recover from adversity.
“The main thing it showed we can’t get out of character,” he said. “We can’t take plays off. We had little slump, and we stopped playing together on defense.”
McGowens said the jittery feeling stayed with him through most of the first half until he hit two free throws with 5:19 left.
“Coach Capel told us to attack,” he said. “I just wish I could have converted (the free throws). Ten of 16, that’s all right, I guess. It’s really not that good of a percentage.”
McGowens, who came into the game hitting 82.8 percent from the free-throw line, said he learned a lesson.
“We have to learn how to play the whole game, instead of just spurts,” he said. “It just humbled us.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.