If you watched the first half of Pitt’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge game against Northwestern, you likely were inclined to find something better to do. But if you stayed, you saw a gritty 71-70 comeback win by the Panthers in the final seconds.
The whole thing was kind of surreal. Pitt did not look good in the first half. Scratch that — they looked awful, starting out 2-20 to start the game. Fortunately for them, Northwestern was only a little better. The Panthers scored only 22 points in the first half and, facing a team that had averaged over 100 points in their first two games, it was easy to see that they could have been in a pretty big hole. But the game remained fairly close as Pitt trailed by only 11. And even that came after Pitt had closed the gap to 17-14 with only six minutes left in the first half before Northwestern extended it.
Then came the second half and Pitt really turned it into a game. Coming into the game, it was Northwestern’s offense we were talking about. But the Panthers scored a whopping 49 points in the second half and looked like a completely different team. Northwestern, on the other hand, was abundantly cold. They shot only 37% from the field and about 29% from three-point range. They were around 50% in both of those areas coming into the contest.
Even with that offensive outburst in the second half, Pitt still needed a few things to happen late in the game.
Trailing by three with 35 seconds left and with Northwestern in possession of the ball, Pitt’s Femi Odukale forced a turnover and made a heady pass for a Justin Champagnie layup to cut the lead to one. On the next possession, Northwestern was sent to the free throw line but missed both attempts. Pitt then got the ball inside to Champagnie for a dunk and the game-winning bucket as Northwestern missed a last-second three-pointer.
Speaking of Champagnie, he was the clear star. He made the team’s last three field goals and finished with 20 points and an eye-opening 20 rebounds. As was mentioned during the commentary, part of the reason he was able to clean up so well on the glass was because Pitt missed so many shots But only five of those were offensive boards and 15 were of the defensive variety. Just a monster game from a guy that is doing it all.
Champagnie had help, obviously. Xavier Johnson who struggled in the first half was really the one to get Pitt back in the game as he caught fire in the second half. 16 of his game high 21 points were in the second half and he added seven boards. Au’Diese Toney had a solid game with 18 points and eight boards.
Two things really stuck out to me here. First, Pitt was basically left for dead and still fought back and competed. Frankly, I didn’t see a way they were going to pull it off even though Northwestern never really opened up a huge lead.
And second, I give a ton of credit to Johnson. He really was a team leader in the second half and you can see the maturation as a player. I say that because he was really rolling in that half and there were a few times when he called for clear outs, etc. In the past, I think he would have forced up shots and that’s what I thought he was intending. But he passed the ball well and did not force much. He’s really starting to understand the need to facilitate and balance that with using his ability to score points. We’ll see if that carries over into other games this year but I liked what I saw from him tonight, despite the slow start.
Really great win for Pitt here. Getting a road P5 win for a team that is still finding its way was nice to see — particularly because they had to come back to do it. Just a gritty win for those guys and something that should help them from a confidence standpoint going forward.
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