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Justin Champagnie returns in Pitt’s 96-76 win over Syracuse

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NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time in as many games, the Pitt men’s basketball team faced Syracuse. And for the second time, the Panthers came out on top in a decisive 96-76 win. The 96 points scored by Pitt was, according to the announcers on the broadcast, the most the team has ever scored against the Cuse.

The Panthers (7-2) got a major unexpected boost against the Orange (7-4) with the early return of Justin Champagnie. Champagnie looked to be a candidate to miss much of the conference season but then there was talk he was progressing faster than normal. And when he showed up in the lineup today, safe to say, there were a lot of surprised folks.

Champagnie didn’t disappoint. I figured he would have a bit of a modest game as he worked himself back and, for a half, that was true. But Champagnie exploded in the second half, finishing with 24 points on 9-18 shooting and 16 rebounds. These sorts of monster games are turning into commonplace for him and he just always seems to be around the ball.

Syracuse’s Alan Griffin was the game’s leading scorer with 28. But the Panthers got the win and Champagnie hardly did it all himself. Xavier Johnson made only 4-12 shots from the field but finished with 23 points and seven assists, knocking down all 13 of his free throws. Ithiel Horton, a guy we haven’t talked nearly enough about, had a big game with 20 points and six boards, making five three-pointers. And Au’Diese Toney added 18. In many games, 18 points could lead the team in scoring. Today, that was only good for making him the fourth leading scorer. I can’t imagine there are many games that feature four 20-point scorers, but we nearly saw that today.

It’s easy to forget how badly the Panthers started. Pitt missed its first ten shots from the field and was down early. As they usually do, though, they managed to fight back. They cut the lead to 17-14 after going on a bit of a run, and a short time later, Xavier Johnson made an ‘and 1’ and gave the Panthers a 22-21 lead. From there it was a back and forth game with the teams remaining relatively close for a while.

But as the game went on, Pitt just got better. The Panthers went off offensively, scoring 64 points in the second half as they were red hot. They were buoyed by, you guessed it, Champagnie. The Panthers kept extending their lead and a Champagnie dunk on Marek Dolezaj highlighted an run and pushed it to 11.

There was a point when Pitt forced the lead to about 15 with around five minutes left and one of the announcers said that the Panthers were just playing with an edge. I was trying to think of a way to adequately describe what it seemed like and, well, that was it. The Panthers are not just out there trying to see what works and find their way — they’re playing in a groove and with a chip on their shoulders. The play in transition looks much smoother than I can recall and, above all, these guys just look comfortable.

Today, specifically, they were just in a rhythm. As I said, Johnson made all 13 of his free throws and Pitt made 26 of their 32 attempts from the stripe overall. They also beat up on Syracuse on the glass, holding a 47-35 advantage there. And the fact that the Panthers took care of the ball deserves attention, too. On the day, Pitt had only six turnovers.

This team has been making steady progress under head coach Jeff Capel and, while they still have a way to go, we’re sort of moving beyond the point where you hope this team competes and getting to a point where you expect that.

Is Pitt an elite team this year? Eh, probably not. Even if you look beyond the disaster of the season opener against St. Francis, the Panthers were still soundly beaten by Louisville this year. And, the Panthers haven’t really scored the signature win that will make folks really start to pay attention (in their defense, aside from Louisville, they haven’t really played any great teams yet). But it’s also worth pointing out that today’s effort would have beaten a lot of teams, too.

Teams do indeed get better as the season wears on so trying to predict how good they can be right now is virtually impossible. At their peak, though, this can be a very good team and there’s noticeable talent at multiple positions. Champagnie is a star and no less than three other guys — Horton, Toney, and X are capable of getting hot offensively. When you have that many guys that can score, opposing teams will have a hard time slowing them down. We talk a lot about the Big 3 but Horton is a guy that’s heating up. He had 20 today, 14 against Syracuse in the last game, and 18 against Miami a month ago. In his last four games, he’s averaging nearly 15 points per contest.

Pitt is now 7-2 and 3-1 in the conference. Too early to talk NCAA Tournament bid? Probably. There’s still a lot of basketball to be played and we don’t even know how Covid will affect things as the season continues. Plus, we need to see if this team can score the resume-building wins that will impress the selection committee. But, right now, as of this minute, the Panthers seem to be willing to put themselves into the conversation. And given that this was not even a .500 team last season, that would be a heck of an achievement.

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