It was the ACC/Big 10 Challenge and the Pittsburgh Panthers (7-2, 1-0) unveiled their black and yellow uniforms for the event. So of course they weren't going to fall flat at home against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (6-2) on Tuesday night after their win in the Fort Myers Tip-Off Tournament over Thanksgiving.
When asked if the team had taken the lessons learned from the Nicholls State game about how to stay focused after a big win, sophomore guard Xavier Johnson said, “The team has matured...we learned that in after big game you have to take every team the same. You have to give every team respect.”
Despite being out rebounded for the entire half (and game), Pitt was able to score in spurts while forcing their opponent into 11 first half turnovers thanks to a very good defensive effort.
On if the teams defense helped fuel their offense, Johnson said, “I think so, that’s where it all starts.”
It was also a good half for guard Ryan Murphy. The junior transfer splashed a three-pointer on the games opening possession on route to 11 first half points, reaching double-digits for just the second time in his last five games. His scoring output along with points from the guard tandem of Trey McGowens - eight - and Johnson - seven - helped their team take a 35-27 lead into the half.
The Panthers struggled to keep that momentum when play resumed, however. Shots that didn’t even hit the rim and turnovers led to easy looks at the rim for Rutgers. An 8-0 run by the Scarlet Knights tied the game at 37 going into the first media timeout. A McGowens layup ignited a 13-2 run by Pitt that finished with a Johnson layup at the 12:03 mark. They never lost the lead again.
Head Coach Jeff Capel knew Rutgers was a good second half team, but after a timeout he felt they came out with a more concerted effort to defend, rebound, and finish plays.
With McGowens in foul trouble for a decent chunk of the second half, it was the Xavier Johnson show to close the game. Aside from his timely scoring, he assisted on the Panthers last three made baskets on route to a 71-60 victory.
Johnson led all scorers with his season-high 20 points on an efficient 8-14 from the floor. He also added eight assists and two steals. McGowens was also efficient from the floor, scoring 16 points on 6-9 from the field. Murphy finished with 15, while sophomore forward Au’Diese Toney reached the 10-point mark as well.
Pitt will only be able to enjoy this win for a short while as they have a date with the number one team in the country, the Louisville Cardinals, this Friday.