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Panthers Early Surge Enough Against Tar Heels, 66-52

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It was apparent from the start that this game mattered, a lot, to the Pittsburgh Panthers (12-6, 3-4). “It’s big time”, was sophomore point guard Xavier Johnson’s response when asked what sweeping the North Carolina Tar Heels (8-9, 1-5) on Saturday afternoon meant. Head coach Jeff Capel added in his post game press conference, “Any time you get to sweep them, it’s a pretty special thing.”

A sweep didn’t seem like a certainty at the onset of the game. But what started out as an aggressive start from both teams saw Pitt sprint ahead of North Carolina on the back of a 13-0 run that started with a jumper from junior guard Ryan Murphy at the 12:29 mark. It ended with a pair of free throws by senior forward Eric Hamilton at the 8:34 mark; the Panthers led 26-10 when it was all said and done.

Things didn’t get much better for the Tar Heels. While they did manage to score 13 points before halftime, Pitt countered with 17 of their own. Most of which came on three-pointers.

Lost in the offensive onslaught was an excellent defensive effort by the Panthers. They limited UNC to just 33.3% from the floor and forced them into 11 turnovers and just with made field goals.

“I thought their defense dominated our offense,” was what head coach Roy Williams had to say about Pitt’s defensive effort in the first half. He cited the Panthers aggressiveness from the start as a big reason for that.

Sophomore point guard Xavier Johnson on the importance of the teams defense fueling their offense, “It’s actually big.” Murphy went into more detail, citing their guards ability to force their opponent to catch the ball farther out so they couldn’t initiate offense.

Individually, Johnson led the way for Pitt in the first half. He finished the half with 14 points on 4-8 shooting, including 2-4 on three-pointers. Murphy came off the bench to score 11 points on 4-6 from the field and 3-5 from long distance.

In the second half, North Carolina realized they had an advantage inside. They went to forwards, freshman Armando Bacot and junior Garrison Brooks for looks around the rim. The Panthers also found themselves in foul trouble early in the half, recording four team fouls in less than three minutes. Despite the rocky start to the half for Pitt, the Tar Heels were unable to capitalize as they still trailed by 20 going into the under-12 media timeout, 56-36.

However, UNC was all over the offensive glass in the half and they slowly crawled their way back into the game. It didn’t help that the Panthers didn’t convert a field goal from the 15:07 mark until there was 6:37 left in the game. Despite the late push by North Carolina, Pitt won 66-52 and swept their season series against the Tar Heels.

Johnson finished with a game-high 20 points on 4-11 shooting, including 2-5 on three-pointers and 10-12 from the free throw line. Murphy contributed 13 points on 5-10 from the floor, but cooled off in the second half.

UNC was led by Brooks with 16 points on 7-15 from the field; he also had a game-high 13 rebounds.

The Panthers will remain at home this week as they’ll face the Boston College Eagles (9-8, 3-3) at 9pm this Wednesday.

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