Freshman Trey McGowens snaps slump; Pitt beats Notre Dame to end skid
Jeff Capel had several reasons to smile Saturday.
The final score, obviously, felt good for Pitt’s first-year coach. Pitt stopped a 13-game, nearly two-month losing streak with a 56-53 victory against Notre Dame at Petersen Events Center, escaping last place in the ACC. Now, the Panthers (13-18, 3-15) enter the ACC Tournament as the No. 14 seed and will play No. 11 Boston College at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C.
But those are merely the most obvious facts anyone can find with a click of their mouse.
What’s inside some of Pitt’s players came to light Saturday, and Capel left the Pete grateful and proud after:
• Struggling freshman guard Trey McGowens led the team with 16 points and snatched a steal from the Irish with 15 seconds left that ended their last, best chance to force overtime.
“It was good to see him look confident again,” Capel said.
• Sophomore center Kene Chukwuka pushed through back pain that limits him every day in practice. He played 33 minutes Saturday, led the team with six rebounds, made his only shot attempt and even blocked one by Notre Dame. His offensive rebound and feed to Malik Ellison was part of Pitt’s 13-2 run late in the first half.
“For him to play with energy, to play hard, to screen, to give his body up, to take charges, it’s inspiring,” Capel said.
Said Chukwuka, modestly: “That’s my job. I’m just doing the little things, trying to help out where I can.”
Pitt started slow, trailed by 12 with seven minutes left in the first half and needed some inaccurate shooting by Notre Dame late in the game to seal the victory. But Capel will view video of this game as if it was a work of art.
“It wasn’t pretty, but it was beautiful for us in the end to be on this side of it again. It’s been a long time,” he said.
It might even turn out to be a program-builder if Capel re-routes the trajectory of a program that has suffered through three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 2000. The losses have mounted, but not so high and so devastating that it affected players in their last regular-season game.
“As guys in our program continue to grow up and become juniors and seniors,” Capel said, “we’ll be able to look back on these experiences when we get this thing really going and understand this was a big part of that. This was necessary for us to go through and to do it together for us to have success.”
Others might scoff that playing hard is the least any player can do, but Capel is proud his team maintained a standard he will demand going forward.
“Some of them, we had to teach. Some of them had it, and it was stripped away a little bit because of their experiences from the past, but it’s something that is demanded in our program,” he said. “If you can’t do it, this isn’t the right place for you. It’s not personal. It’s just reality. This year has been very important to learn that, to try and instill that.”
McGowens was a good example of what Capel means.
He had scored fewer than 10 points on 10 occasions in 13 games since getting 30 in Pitt’s most recent victory — Florida State on Jan. 14 — but he ended his slump in a big way Saturday.
His 3-pointer helped turn Notre Dame’s 12-point lead into a 26-25 advantage for the Irish at halftime. He also had an impressive tomahawk dunk over John Mooney, Notre Dame’s 6-foot-9, 242-pound forward.
“I thought the dunk really ignited him, and it really ignited us,” Capel said.
Then, at the start of the second half, Capel diagrammed a play, but McGowens read something else, refused a screen and scored on a layup to give Pitt the lead.
“That was good to see him do that,” Capel said.
McGowens’ struggles coincided with the team’s, but Capel was happy to see him set those aside for an afternoon.
“Really good players have the ability to have convenient amnesia, and they’re able to move on to the next play and not allow the past to affect them,” he said. “That’s very difficult for a young player, especially for a young player who wants to do well so bad.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .