Once again the Pittsburgh Panthers (5-0) got off to a slow start, but unlike their win over the Central Arkansas Bears on Thursday, their sluggish play persisted throughout the first half. On the slow start:
Xavier Johnson admitted, “As a team we honestly did look fatigued.” While Malik Ellison added, “It might have been the early start.”
The North Alabama Lions (2-2) didn’t particularly shoot the ball well, just 38.7% in the first half, but they were able to hit some timely shots during a near 5 minute stretch where the Panthers didn’t convert a field goal. It wasn’t like Pitt didn’t have some really good opportunities; they missed a bevy of layups and shots around the rim.
North Alabama was able to take advantage of the Panthers woes and took a 33-29 lead into halftime.
Pitt came out of the gates on a 8-0 to start the second half. They made a concerted effort to get the ball in Johnson’s hands throughout the second half. He drew two fouls on the Lions in less than a minute into the half, and helped start a nice passing sequence that resulted in a dunk by Au’Diese Toney.
North Alabama didn’t fold, however. They stayed within one or two possessions for a majority of the half, but never managed to take the lead. Johnson and Kene Chukwuka were paramount for the Panthers during the back-10 of the second half. The former was relentless attacking the basket, getting to the FT line, and initiating the team’s offense. The ladder provided hustle minutes on the defensive end and did a nice job of helping and recovering, feinting help and confusing the ball handler.
Johnson scored or assisted on every field goal in the last 5 minutes, as Pitt survived to win 71-66. Head Coach Capel on Johnson’s performance: “We put the ball in his hands and he was able to make plays.”
He led the Panthers with 23 points on 6-13 from the field and a much needed 10-12 from the charity stripe. Au’Diese Toney led the team with 8 rebounds, and both Johnson and Ellison were tied on the team with 3 assists a piece.
Kendarius Smith led the Lions with 19 points on 7-14 from the floor and 5-9 from beyond the arc.
On whether or not playing a close game was good for Pitt, Ellison said, “I wouldn’t say it’s good, at least it showed that we are all tough.” Capel felt it was a good learning experience for the team, “It’s a great situation for us...it’s something we can’t simulate in practice...there’s a lot of things we can learn from this.”
The Panthers may have their first test of the season on Wednesday in the Barclays Center Classic against the Saint Louis Billikens (3-0). Saint Louis has also beaten Troy and North Alabama this season.