All the signs were there for Pitt to knock off Duke at home on Tuesday night and, at the end of the evening, that’s what happened. After nearly blowing a large lead, the Panthers held on for a 79-73 win over the Blue Devils.
Pitt (8-2) started out red hot for once, going on an 8-0 run to start the game. The Panthers mostly held control in the first half and even built a lead in the second half of 15 points. But Duke (5-4) wouldn’t go quietly. The Blue Devils would cut the lead to two late in the game but the Panthers had too much and, behind some late buckets, had just enough to hold on for the win.
For Pitt it was Justin Champagnie leading the way, as usual. Champagnie had a monster game with a career-high 31 points to along with 14 rebounds. Add in five blocks and, well, that’s a recipe for Player of the Game. Duke star Matthew Hurt had a surprisingly quiet game with 13 points an six rebounds on only 5-13 shooting. The Blue Devils were led by forward Jalen Johnson, who came off the bench for 24 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists. Fortunately for Pitt, he fouled out with a few minutes to go and that helped to seal the Pitt win.
It wasn’t only the Champagnie show. Au’Diese Toney had a monster game, too, going for 22 and 11 (rebounds). Xavier Johnson had a poor night shooting (2-9) but still managed nine points and a game-high 11 assists.
Champagnie had help but this was clearly his show. And he couldn’t have picked a much bigger stage for such a big performance than an ESPN prime time game against Duke.
We’ve talked about Champagnie needing to develop a jump shot but he was 4-7 from three-point range tonight. Few want to raise the uncomfortable subject of Champagnie leaving early but, if we keep seeing games like this, it’s a more and more likely scenario. At some point, the questions just get fewer and fewer and, while he may not be ready to go just yet, with each 20 and 10 game, the chance probably increases — particularly if Champagnie is able to showcase a jump shot and three-point range. The question is if Champagnie can improve his stock enough the rest of the year to catapult himself into the first round of the NBA Draft. If not, such a move seems questionable.
Along those same lines, it’s also disturbing to wonder where Pitt would be without him right now. There are a few times this year where Champagnie has put the team on his back and carried them. This was one of those. There will be more this season. Players like Champagnie are difference-makers and can mean the difference between winning and losing. And if he’s not around next year, that’s a lot of production lost.
This isn’t a time to talk about that now, though. Right now, we need to be focused on this team and what they’re accomplishing.
Make no mistake — this is a big win. Duke at 5-4 is clearly not the same Duke team we’re used to seeing. But players like Hurt and Johnson are NBA talents. Duke may not be an elite team but I’m convinced they’ll be a solid one when it’s all said and done. Winning a game like this for Pitt is still very important. It’s important for the ACC standings. It’s important for the perception of the program. And it’s important for the psyche of the players who came out like gangbusters to start the game and were clearly motivated. Can we give head coach Jeff Capel and company some credit, too, for getting these guys ready to play?
The Panthers are 8-2 and now at 4-1 in the ACC, are tied for third in the conference with Florida State (also 8-2 overall), a half-game behind Virginia Tech, and a full game behind 5-0 Virginia.
Can Pitt do the unthinkable and win the ACC? Way too early, folks. You don’t need me to tell you that and some of you are certainly laughing as I even broach the question. We’re a long way off before even thinking about Pitt even being able to compete for a title. And even the margin between where the Panthers are and the middle of the field is razor thin (Clemson and Duke are 3-2 and in the middle of the conference). But the Panthers are certainly competing in the ACC and have a fighting chance to finish in the upper half of the conference.
Really big win and the Panthers now get 3-10 Boston College on Saturday. I don’t want to look past anyone in the conference, obviously — and it’s worth pointing out that the Eagles nearly beat Duke themselves. But if the Panthers win that game, they would be 9-2 and likely find themselves not all that far from the Top 25.
And given that the poll includes several teams in the Top 20 with four losses, frankly, they should.