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Pitt falls short against North Carolina, 75-65

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NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time in as many games, the Pitt men’s basketball team found itself on the losing side, falling to North Carolina, 75-65. This marked the first time the Panthers have lost consecutive games this season.

The game was a tight one in the first half. North Carolina (11-5) held a 20-19 lead over the Panthers (8-4) about three quarters of the way through before extending it to seven by halftime. The Tar Heels would blow things open in the second half to take a 66-50 lead but the Panthers narrowed the gap to five with about three minutes to play. That was as close as they’d get, though. Pitt was scoreless in the last three minutes and the Tar Heels went on the for the 10-point win.

Pitt’s Justin Champagnie continued his campaign for ACC Player of the Year with another dominant game, scoring 23 points and adding ten rebounds and two blocks. He again showed off an improved three-point shot, nailing four of his five shots from beyond the arc. Champagnie made seven of his nine attempts from the field but the rest of the team was far less efficient.

Guard Ithiel Horton, for example, played solidly and provided some offense with 12 points, including a couple of threes. But overall, he shot only 4-11 from the field. Starters Au’Diese Toney, Xavier Johnson, and Abdoul-Karim Coulibaly added a total of only points and shot a combined 8-25 from the floor. Overall, the team shot 42% from the field but minus Champagnie, that number comes down to about 35%. Just not a great showing on offense from the starters as a collective group.

The Tar Heels, meanwhile, gave the Panthers another hot shooting opponent. After a great shooting performance from Wake Forest, the Tar Heels shot nearly 53% from the field. Armando Bacot led them with a season-high 21.

Rebounding was a contributing factor, too. The Tar Heels beat the Panthers to the punch on the glass, outrebounding them 37-29. That doesn’t seem too surprising given how well North Carolina shot but the Tar Heels also beat Pitt out in offensive rebounds, too, 14-11. They are one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the country and showed why.

Champagnie, for one, thought that was the difference.

“Like we got to look at what we did wrong and you got to correct the mistakes,” he said. “...it’s not like we can’t compete with all these teams, we can compete with every team in the ACC.”

“We could have won the game,” Champagnie added. “In fact they outscored us because of offensive rebounds, like literally that’s the only reason why I feel that we lost.”

Speaking of Champagnie, he did plenty, obviously. But folks are starting to pay attention to his use on offense. If he’s so good, should he be taking more shots?

I mentioned in the last gamethread against Wake Forest that Pitt didn’t do enough to get him the ball in the second half. Or, at the very least, the handful of shots he took weren’t enough. Champagnie’s nine attempts were under the microscope in this game, too.

Head coach Jeff Capel is absolutely aware that they need to do more to showcase their star. When asked after the game if Pitt needs to find ways to get him more shots, he acknowledged that was wholeheartedly true. But he also attributed part of it to North Carolina limiting him a bit.

“We do,” Capel said plainly. “We absolutely do and again, we have to run our offense better in order to do that. We have to be able to execute. We have to be able to get into entries and get the ball where we want to get it to. North Carolina did a good job of taking us out of some of our stuff today.”

Teams beginning to focus on Champagnie is nothing new. He’s positioned himself as one of the top players in the conference and without enough consistency on offense from Toney and Johnson, he’s going to see more double teams and an increased emphasis on shutting him down. The good news is that despite this, Champagnie is still flourishing and making the most out of what he’s getting. The bad? It’s only going to get more difficult as the season goes on with teams actively gamplanning to stop Pitt’s best player.

The best way to combat that, of course, is by getting more consistency from other players that make teams pay for focusing too much on Champagnie. But if the team struggles on offense, like they did here, they can’t do that. You’d rather give up, say, the 11 shots that Horton had to only nine for Champagnie. Or eight to X. Or ten to Toney. If those guys struggle, more times than not, it’s going to result in heartbreak for Pitt — particularly against the capable teams like North Carolina. It’s that simple.

No sugarcoating here — it was a disappointing loss, made a little worse by the fact that the Panthers were upset by Wake Forest in the previous contest. Still, the Tar Heels are no slouch and it’s hardly in the category of bad loss.

The loss finds the Panthers still in the upper half of the conference with a 4-3 ACC record. But it’s clear that they aren’t elite and only one game separates the No. 6 Panthers from the next four teams (Duke, Georgia Tech, Clemson, and Syracuse). Essentially, Pitt finds itself in the middle of the conference right now and, while that’s certainly an improvement from last year, it shows work still needs to be done to get them into the discussion with the likes of Virginia, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Louisville, and the Tar Heels.

Next up, the Panthers get another one of the conference’s weaker teams this year in 5-8 Notre Dame at home Saturday night.

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