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Justin Champagnie returns ahead of schedule for Pitt

The Pitt star returned two weeks early from an LCL injury to face Syracuse

NCAA Basketball: Gardner-Webb at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt small forward Justin Champagnie was initially expected to be out for six to eight weeks as a result of an LCL injury he suffered just before Pitt’s Dec. 22 matchup with Louisville. However, Jeff Capel noted he was ahead of schedule in his recovery, and on Saturday, he took the court as a starter for Pitt’s ACC contest with Syracuse.

It appears Champagnie was a game-time decision on Saturday, as there was no prior announcement from Pitt that the Brooklyn native would be available. However, in a tight matchup Las Vegas oddsmakers saw Syracuse as a 3.5-point favorite in, it’s also possible Capel was withholding his star player’s status to gain a slight edge over the Orange.

Champagnie entered the game as the team’s top scorer and the ACC’s best rebounder, with 17.8 points and 12.3 boards per game through his first six contests of the season. However, he showed some signs of rust in his return, as he did not get on the board until the 11:44 mark, when he knocked down two free throws to bring the score to 10-6, Syracuse.

With that said, Champagnie was not timid around the rim despite donning a brace on his left knee, and he began to look like his old self in the final 10 minutes of the opening half. And thanks in part to his contributions, Pitt was far more competitive early on in its matchup with Syracuse than it was the last time the the two teams met. Now, one half into the wing's first game back, Syracuse holds a narrow five-point lead, with the score at 37-32 in a close matchup that has gone back and forth.

The return of Champagnie is a major development for Pitt, as it puts the team back on track in what looks to be a bounce-back year. And with two consecutive strong showings against a respected rival in Syracuse — including one win without Champagnie — it seems there’s reason for optimism as the Panthers advance through their ACC slate.