Pitt looked ready for a fight with West Virginia early on Saturday, as the Panthers held their own for the first 10 minutes or so of the Backyard Brawl amid increasingly chippy play at WVU Coliseum. There were even some highlights for Pitt in the first half, as Kene Chukwuka blocked a shot by Sagaba Konate and Sidy N’Dir put the Mountaineers star forward on a poster with a thunderous dunk.
However, sloppy play became a major hindrance for Pitt as West Virginia applied a full-court press, which was in part responsible for the Panthers giving up 14 turnovers and committing 14 fouls in the first half. On top of that, characteristic first-half plays for Pitt included N’Dir getting himself trapped in the half-court corner and coughing up the ball on errant passes as well as fast-break opportunities squandered on botched dunks.
While Pitt was the beneficiary of solid offensive showings from freshmen Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens, the team’s young talent did not get much help from the upperclassmen, as Malik Ellison failed to score until the second half, Jared Wilson-Frame’s big shooting performances remained a thing of the past and N’Dir’s mistakes outweighed his contributions.
As a result, the Panthers finished the first half down 39-27 to the Mountaineers, and Pitt head coach Jeff Capel had a litany of issues to address in the locker room.
Anyone hoping to see a renewed and refocused Pitt team in the second half was met with disappointment, as the same issues continued to plague the Panthers as the game spun further out of control.
Specifically, Pitt’s turnover woes continued, as it surpassed its previous high-water mark of 18 with 24. Of course, the Mountaineers’ ineptitude kept the door open for a Panthers comeback, as they had 26 turnovers of their own and seemed to take their foot off the gas.
That allowed Pitt to pull closer late in the game, and McGowens, in particular, stood out as the team clawed its way back, as he continually drove to the basket and challenged Konate, showing no fear. As a result, he finished with a career-high 18 points to go with four rebounds and an assist. However, Pitt’s top scorer and offensive catalyst was once again Johnson, who had 21 points, six rebounds and two assists in his first Backyard Brawl.
Despite their efforts, Pitt fell to West Virginia, 69-59. While the outcome was disappointing, it was also somewhat expected, as it would have been surprising for a team so reliant on freshmen, even freshmen as talented as Pitt’s, to rise up and knock off a team as defensively aggressive as West Virginia.
As a result of the loss, Pitt drops to 7-3 on the season, and West Virginia improves to 6-3. The Panthers will take the court again next Saturday, when they return home to the Petersen Events Center to take on Maryland Eastern Shore Hawks, a 1-8 team from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.