Pitt steals the show on Robert Morris’ opening night with a 71-57 victory
Jeff Capel had to smile.
His Pitt team had survived opening night at Robert Morris’ $45 million UPMC Events Center, rolling to a 71-57 victory Tuesday after settling for a 27-27 tie at halftime.
It was Pitt’s first victory in a true road game since Feb. 8, 2017, at Boston College.
Capel’s young team is growing up, but he steadfastly reminded everyone it still has a long way to go.
“We took a step (toward) maturity,” he said of the second victory in Pitt’s first three games. “But we’re still not even close to being there. This is a process, and we have a lot of teaching (to do). But I am pleased with some of the things we saw tonight.”
Among the most pleasing was sophomore guard Trey McGowens’ performance: 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
“I thought he just got into a good rhythm offensively,” said Capel, referring to McGowens’ eight baskets in 13 attempts. “We found something that worked. We kept going to it, and he kept making plays.”
But the story of the game was how Pitt recovered from an 18-point Robert Morris run in the first half.
Pitt opened by recording the game’s first seven points. Junior guard Ryan Murphy scored the first points in the Colonials’ new home with a 3-point shot 24 seconds into the game. Then, Pitt’s struggles began. Short-lived, yes, but troubling nonetheless.
“From the under-16 (minute) timeout to the under-12 timeout, we were really bad,” Capel said. “We had four straight turnovers (and only seven the rest of the game) and just panicked a little bit.”
But in the midst of it, he gathered his team around him and offered encouragement.
“Coach told us to settle down,” McGowens said. “They had their run. Let’s have our run.”
Pitt proceeded to score 10 points in a row after Robert Morris led 18-7 with 10 minutes, 21 seconds left in the first half. The Colonials (0-3) had to settle for a 27-27 tie at intermission.
“This was big for us,” Capel said. “When they made their run, it was loud, and we could have folded. But I’m proud that we stepped up and made some plays.”
A few days earlier, Capel’s words to his players were stronger, his attempt to prod them after a listless week of practice and a 75-70 loss to Nicholls State on Saturday.
“Coach had some words, and it was the truth,” McGowens said. “We just had to bounce back and forget about it.”
Asked to detail what the coach had to say in the days leading up to Tuesday’s game, McGowens was reluctant to disrespect the sanctity of the locker room.
“(He said), ‘Get out of your own head,’ ” McGowens offered. “He said some other words, but it was what we needed to hear.”
Added Capel: “We’re really, really young, and we’re really inexperienced, and we don’t know success and we had a small bit (in a victory against Florida State). We didn’t handle it right, and it was a lesson.”
Capel’s words — pregame and in the moment — hit their mark. Pitt outscored Robert Morris, 44-30, in the second half, with McGowens, Terrell Brown, Au’Diese Toney and freshman Justin Champagnie doing most of the damage.
The Colonials never led in the second half, partially because they had no answer for the 6-foot-10 Brown, who almost recorded a double-double with eight points, nine rebounds and five blocks.
“He probably changed at least three or four more (shots),” Capel said.
“Terrell was a monster, cleaning up the glass,” said Toney, who had 11 points and five rebounds on his 20th birthday. “He was doing the dirty work, doing everything coach preached.”
Brown set a career high in minutes played (36:13), largely because Capel liked what he saw.
“I thought he got very tired,” Capel said. “It’s probably the most minutes he ever played, but I didn’t want to take him out because of what he was doing for us defensively.”
Brown, a junior, has started the season playing the best basketball of his collegiate career.
“Sometimes, it takes guys a little bit longer, and a lot of times, it takes big guys longer to figure some things out,” Capel said. “He does not have it figured out now, but he’s taking steps to do it.”
Capel played most of the game with only six players. Brown and Murphy were in the starting lineup for the first time, along with McGowens, Toney and Xavier Johnson. Champagnie, a freshman, came off the bench to score 10 points, joining Murphy (10), McGowens and Toney in double figures.
Pitt’s players felt good about themselves on the short ride home from Robert Morris, but next up is West Virginia on Friday night at Petersen Events Center.
Capel doesn’t want the same malaise that set in after the Florida State victory to infect his team this week.
McGowens said the celebration would end “as soon as we get back to campus.”
“It’s time to move on,” he said.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .