Xavier Johnson punches back, helps Pitt defeat Monmouth
Jeff Capel could see that Xavier Johnson, his star point guard, was struggling.
Capel also knew it was more than just Johnson’s inability to make shots consistently that was bothering him.
“I was reading about what other people were saying about me,” Johnson said. “It was bad. I was getting upset about it.”
So, Capel sat him down Friday night after the loss to West Virginia and told him the story of Rocky Balboa and Clubber Lang in “Rocky III.”
Unorthdox coaching, perhaps, but it worked Monday night at Petersen Events Center as Pitt recovered from a listless first half to defeat Monmouth, 63-50.
Johnson still has a long road ahead of him to reach his goals, but for one night, he was in control of the game of basketball, joining backcourt mate Trey McGowens and freshman Justin Champagnie in leading Pitt to its third victory in five games.
After getting benched in the first half while missing his only two shot attempts, Johnson finished with 15 points and nine assists while McGowens scored 16 and Champagnie reached a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Partial credit should go to “Rocky III” and Capel’s ability to equate it to Johnson’s struggles.
He told Johnson the story of how Rocky Balboa became heavyweight champion of the world in the movies “Rocky I” and “Rocky II.”
“He’s this street guy, and he hadn’t done anything,” Capel said, relating his conversation with Johnson. “He wins the title and as “Rocky III” starts, he’s the man and he’s getting ready to fight Clubber Lang. And he gets his butt beat because he lost his edge.
“Sometimes, when you have success it can make you lose your edge.”
Speaking of Johnson, Capel said, “He was a guy last year who was incredibly hungry because no one knew who the heck he was. All of a sudden, you have a good year individually (he set several Pitt freshman scoring records last season), and so there’s an expectation.
“ ‘I can be a pro. It’s something I dreamed about. Maybe it’s close.’ ”
But Capel was brutally honest with Johnson.
“Success can make you soft sometimes,” he said. “We talked about that. I told him you have to get your edge back. You have to get back to what made you really good. He has to get back to being that hungry dude from northern Virginia that no one really knew about that came here with something to prove.”
Capel’s message struck the right chord with Johnson, who cut off his Twitter account to silence the noise.
“I’m glad to hear he did that,” Capel said. “I don’t tell guys to get off. That’s their right to have that, but they have to learn how to handle it responsibly.”
Speaking of handling things, Pitt was forced to handle adversity while shooting 19.2% (5 of 26) in the first half and stumbling to a 21-19 halftime lead against a team that was coming off a 55-point loss to Kansas last Friday.
“The first half was another 20 minutes of kind of like a carry-over from the last game (when Pitt shot 12% in the second half of the loss to West Virginia). It wasn’t pretty. It was actually ugly. But we continued to defend and somehow we had a lead at the half.
“We are a team that is struggling with confidence. Stuff for us is different this year, and guys are having to get adjusted.”
There are expectations that didn’t exist last season.
“Then, we come out and we win the first game (against Florida State),” Capel said, “and those expectations become even more. Then, we had a setback (the loss to Nicholls State), and it messed with us. That’s why I was really proud of what we did in the second half.”
Pitt shot 63.6% (14 of 22) after halftime and committed only three turnovers after giving it up 12 times in the first half.
“It was good to see the ball go through the basket,” Capel said. “Anytime you see the ball go through the basket, that changes a lot.”
Johnson, who scored 13 of his 15 points in the final 20 minutes, committed his third turnover with 14 minutes, 14 seconds left in the first half. He didn’t have another the rest of the night.
“It was great to see Xavier have some plays that we know he’s capable of … that we’ve seen before,” Capel said. “I saw some of it in the second half. Like I told him, it’s not going to happen overnight. You have to build that back.”
Johnson said getting benched in the first half calmed him down, but the real help came long before that.
“My teammates and my coaching staff were all in my corner, telling me not to worry about (the criticism) and to keep playing,” he said.
“Coach Capel told me to play like it is a pick-up game, which is what I did in the second half.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .