Kevin Gorman's Take 5: Pitt learns valuable lesson with 1st ACC victory
The Pitt Panthers weren’t just seeking their first regular-season ACC victory in 22 games but their first conference win at Petersen Events Center since beating Florida State, 80-66, on Feb. 18, 2017.
If you’re counting, that’s a span of 690 days between ACC victories.
That made Louisville the last opponent the Panthers wanted to see Wednesday.
Pitt had a 12-game losing streak against Louisville that dated to 2010 — Panthers first-year coach Jeff Capel was exasperated upon learning that — and included a 1-7 record against the Cardinals at the Pete.
Pitt’s home record against all other opponents: 257-51.
The Panthers knew they needed something special. They got an historic performance by a freshman, only to blow a 16-point second-half lead as Louisville rallied to forced overtime.
When it was over, Pitt pulled out an 89-86 victory that Capel called “huge for this program at this moment.”
1. Trey’s Day
Trey McGowens scored a game-high 33 points, breaking the school freshman record of 29 set by Clyde Vaughan against James Madison in 1980.
McGowens was spectacular in the first half in scoring 20 points, including 10 consecutive on a pair of 3-pointers, a reverse layup and a drive to the basket.
“I thought he played like the most confident player on the floor,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said.
Most impressive is McGowens did this after a collision that injured his knee, forcing him out of the game and to ride the stationary bike to loosen up.
“I know every time we went to sub him back in, he was on the bike,” Capel said.
McGowens made 12 of 19 shots, including four 3s, and had six rebounds, two assists and three steals in 36 minutes. He finished 5 of 10 on free throws after missing four of his first six attempts.
“McGowens was incredible, especially in the first half and start of the second,” Capel said. “He picked his spots from there.”
2. Triple threat
McGowens was far from alone in making an offensive impact, as Xavier Johnson scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half for a combined 54 points.
That’s the most in school history by a freshmen tandem, breaking their own mark of 45 points against New Orleans last month.
Johnson made some key plays late in the second half, especially after Louisville cut it to 63-60 with 7:50 remaining. First, he fed Terrell Brown for a basket, followed with a 3 and dish to Brown for a dunk and a 72-60 lead.
And fellow freshman Au’Diese Toney provided a strong effort defensively, holding Louisville forward Jordan Nwora to 2-of-14 shooting (1 of 7 from 3-point range) and eight points.
“Toney’s defense on Nwora was big time,” Capel said. “We wanted to have an awareness for him. He’s as improved as any guy in this league, and we did an amazing job on him.”
It’s amazing that the cornerstones of this Pitt team — and its first ACC victory — are three freshmen. It’s even more amazing, especially to Louisville’s Mack, that McGowens and Toney would still be in high school if they hadn’t reclassified.
“The backcourt for Pitt was phenomenal,” Mack said. “They’re freshmen now, and the way they played us was unbelievable.”
3. Good start
Terrell Brown got his first start since the season opener against Youngstown State and performed like a player who doesn’t want to leave the first five.
Brown set a school record against Colgate with nine blocked shots and was solid with five points, nine rebounds and four blocks against North Carolina.
But he was a difference-maker on offense against Louisville, making 5 of 7 shots for 11 points to go with five rebounds and five blocks.
In one three-minute, second-half stretch, Brown scored a layup, blocked a shot by Malik Williams, made a free throw, sank a turnaround jump-hook and flushed a dunk for a 77-65 lead.
But he drew his fifth personal foul with 2:01 left and had to watch the rest of the game from the bench.
“Terrell Brown was incredible,” Capel said.
4. Louisville responds
Pitt led by as many as 16 points at 53-37 with 14:37 remaining but knew the lead wasn’t safe.
The Cardinals chipped away behind Christen Cunningham, a graduate transfer from Samford who scored 20 of his 23 points in the second half.
Ryan McMahon, who scored 11 points off the bench, made a 3-pointer to cut it to 79-77 with 1:45 left. Dwayne Sutton, who finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds, made an off-balance bank shot to tie the game with 26.1 seconds left to force overtime.
It was a test for the young Panthers, who were coming off a 25-point loss to North Carolina in the ACC opener and had been challenged by Capel to increase their investment in the game.
“They threw punches, and we responded,” Capel said. “For us to get to overtime after having a 10-point lead late … In the huddle, our guys were dejected and I jumped on them and said, ‘We’re going to win. We have this.’ ”
5. Closing out
Johnson made up for some late-game mistakes, from throwing a pass out of bounds to passing on a shot in the final possession of regulation.
But after McMahon hit a 3 to open overtime, Johnson answered with a trey of his own to tie it, and the Panthers never fell behind again.
For all of his scoring, McGowens made his biggest play in overtime when he grabbed a long rebound off a McMahon 3-point miss and raced down the floor for a layup to give the Panthers an 88-86 lead with 39.6 seconds left.
They proved to be the winning points.
This was a big victory for the Panthers — and their fans. When Capel credited the Oakland Zoo, he pointed out it was the first ACC victory for Pitt sophomores in the student section. That’s amazing.
It’s more amazing when you consider Pitt freshmen accounted for 60 of their 89 points.
“I’ve talked to these guys since I took the job, and we got together as a group that we’re not going to be the most talented team,” Capel said. “We’re not. That’s the reality. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be the better team. We have to do all the little things really well, and we have to appreciate the little things. …
“Tonight was huge for us, and to show some growth after being excited on Saturday and to lose like that, to come back and want to continue to fight, that was big for us and that’s something that we have to do. Now we have to learn from this situation.”
The most valuable lesson Pitt learned is that it can win in the ACC.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.