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Pitt completes first season sweep of Syracuse since 2016

Pitt earned a satisfying 96-76 win over former Big East rival Syracuse at the Petersen Events Center on Saturday, and while the return of Justin Champagnie dominated the headlines, the game was also a significant occasion in the longstanding rivalry between the Panthers and the Orange. The reason why is because the lopsided victory secured Pitt’s first regular-season sweep of Syracuse since 2016.

This season’s sweep was swift and eventful, as it started with a contest that was bumped up from Feb. 13 to Jan. 6. That gave a Pitt team down four players — one due to an injury, and three due to COVID-19 protocols — three days to prepare for the matchup, and early on, it appeared the Panthers had failed in that endeavor, as they fell behind 11-0 early on.

But after going into halftime down 32-18, Pitt came back, dug in, and was relentless in fighting back. And that proved to be the difference in the game, as Pitt edged past Syracuse on a late layup by Au’Diese Toney with eight seconds left to secure a 63-60 win.

Saturday’s win was also full of drama, albeit drama of a different sort. A few days out, there were concerns the game might not be played, as Syracuse’s previous opponent, Georgetown, had paused activities due to COVID-19 issues. Then, the news broke of Pitt freshman John Hugley’s legal troubles, and there were additional concerns that they could distract the team. And on top of that, Champagnie’s early return from an LCL injury was a surprise to everyone outside the Pitt program.

But even with all those developments, Pitt was able to persevere through another slow start and make the matchup competitive by the end of the first half. That was a major positive, as the team was down just 37-32, which hardly seemed insurmountable after its comeback on Jan. 6, and indeed it proved not to be.

As a result, the Panthers pulled ahead of the Orange in the final frame, getting off to a lopsided 9-1 run that secured the lead. And when all was said and done, three Pitt players had scored 20-plus points, and Syracuse was staring down its worst loss of the season.

The last time Pitt swept Syracuse was in the 2015-16 season, when Jamie Dixon was still Pitt’s head coach. That season marked the last time the team amassed 20 wins, and in it, the Panthers defeated the Orange 72-61 on Dec. 30, 2015, when Jamel Artis came up with 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, and 66-52 on Feb. 20, 2016, on the strength of a 21-point, 11-rebound double-double by Artis.

Pitt also knocked off Syracuse 72-71 on March 9, 2016, when Cam Johnson and Ryan Luther combined for 37 points ans 11 boards off the bench and James Robinson came up with two late layups to keep the Orange out of reach. That advanced Pitt to the quarterfinals of the 2016 ACC tournament, but the team would fall to NC State 88-71 in the next round.

Pitt head coach Jeff Capel has often praised the toughness of Panthers teams of the Dixon era, and with his sweep of Pitt’s neighbors to the north, it seems he has succeeded in instilling some of that same toughness into his own players. Now, with Pitt sitting at 7-2 overall and 3-1 in conference, it looks as if there’s also reason for optimism at Pitt for the first time since Dixon left in 2016. And if Capel is able to close out the season as Dixon did in the past, there could be more to celebrate in March.