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Pitt freshmen shine in season opener against YSU

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Trey McGowens, Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney combined for 45 points

Matt Hawley

Freshmen Trey McGowens, Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney made their debuts for Pitt at the Petersen Events Center on Tuesday night and led the team to a 69-53 win over Youngstown State. The trio was recruited by first-year Pitt head coach Jeff Capel earlier this year and combined for 45 points in the team’s season opener.

McGowens, a former four-star recruit out of Pendleton, South Carolina, led the team with 17 points and grabbed five rebounds. In addition to getting to the basket with regularity and ease, he was efficient, converting on six of his eight inside shots. His only issues were three-point shooting and turnovers, as he went 0-for-3 from beyond the arc and gave the ball up seven times. But overall, McGowens appeared capable of evolving into a leader for the Panthers.

Johnson, who hails from Woodbridge, Virginia, and had a three-star rating, is the subject of great expectations, as Paul Biancardi of ESPN included him on a list of “freshmen who will surprise.” That prediction came to fruition in short order, as Johnson leapt onto the scorer’s table to save a ball from flying out of bounds, surprising not just the fans, but also Pitt radio analyst Dick Groat.

Johnson went on to score 16 points to go along with five rebounds and a team-high six assists. As a result, he looked like one of the most well-rounded players to suit up for Pitt in the contest.

Then there was Toney, Pitt’s third freshman starter in Tuesday’s matchup. The four-star talent from Huntsville, Alabama, scored the first two points of the Capel era and ultimately came one rebound shy of a double-double in his first game with the Panthers. In addition to leading the team with nine rebounds, he was also able to contribute 12 points to the winning effort.

While the matchup with Youngstown State yielded several pristine stat lines, it’s worth keeping in mind that they were attained against a Horizon League team that went 8-24 last season and shot 27 percent from the field. The real test will be whether the Panthers can continue to put on performances of this sort against tougher competition, like Iowa, West Virginia, and ACC teams.

With that said, the win over Youngstown State signaled two important things. One: Capel recruited players who are ready to compete immediately. Two: Their talent will furnish Pitt with the depth it was missing last season, as former top scorer Jared Wilson-Frame’s absence was hardly noticeable on Tuesday; upperclassman Malik Ellison ranked third in scoring; and Khameron Davis, Sidy N’Dir and Shamiel Stevenson were able to slot in as bench relief rather than front-line talent.

Those are positive signs for a Pitt team that relied heavily on individual performances from the likes of Parker Stewart and Ryan Luther last season to keep it in games. Ultimately, that approach proved problematic, as the Panthers tended to collapse under their lack of depth, leading to their 8-24 overall finish. Now, at least, Pitt appears to have a foundation in place for future success.