The odds could not have been stacked against Pitt much more than they were at the Carrier Dome on Wednesday, as the team was down four scholarship players for a road matchup played on three days’ notice with a Syracuse team it last beat in 2017. But still, the Panthers managed to pull off a dramatic come-from-behind victory, topping the Orange 63-60.
The win was Jeff Capel’s first over Jim Boeheim since he became Pitt’s head coach in 2018. Heading into Wednesday, Capel was 0-5 against the Syracuse coach during his time at Pitt, but he had beaten him once before in a Sweet 16 matchup in the 2009 NCAA tournament as Oklahoma’s head coach. With that said, he had Blake Griffin on the court in that matchup and did not even have Justin Champagnie available this time around, making the feat all the more impressive. And thanks to his efforts, Pitt snapped a seven-game losing streak against its rival to the north.
“Obviously, it’s a hell of a win for us,” Capel said during his postgame press conference. “I’m really proud of our team because we showed a lot of fight, we showed a lot of grit, we showed a lot of toughness, and we were resilient.”
“We tried to establish in our program that we’re going to fight,” Capel added later. “When I thought of Pittsburgh basketball before I came here — when they were really good — it was the toughness. It was the fight.”
One of the keys to Pitt’s long-awaited victory over former Big East rival Syracuse was conquering Boeheim’s notorious zone defense, which was a thorn in the side of young and undersized Panthers teams of the past. But this time around, a more mature team found cracks in the Orange armor and exploited them by feeding the ball into Terrell Brown and, on other occasions, simply not giving Syracuse's defenders a chance to get their bearings.
Pitt's guards were essential to the winning effort, as Ithiel Horton knocked down four threes, Femi Odukale jetted past the Orange defense for easy buckets on multiple occasions, Au'Diese Toney posted a double-double, and Xavier Johnson did a little bit of everything for the team in the second half.
All told, the quartet combined for 48 of the team’s 63 points. And Johnson’s game-high seven assists were particularly vital, as Pitt’s improved ball movement — especially in the second half, when Johnson found his form and posted all of his stats other than a steal, a turnover and two fouls — confounded the Syracuse defense, making victory possible.
In Wednesday's win, Pitt began to resemble Capel’s stated vision for the program and displayed the fighting spirit he discussed after the game, as the Panthers, led by their guards, took the court in the second half down 32-18 with their backs against the wall and came out throwing haymakers. And while the individual performances of the players were obviously essential to the outcome, Capel’s ability to coordinate a winning effort over a legend of the game on short notice and with key players out has to be recognized as a pivotal moment in his career and in Pitt’s transformation into a solid program with a distinct culture.
Now, with a major hurdle cleared, the Panthers sit at 6-2 on the season and hold a 2-1 record in the ACC and a 3-0 record on the road. The Panthers have also gained some respect in the NET rankings, jumping 14 spots from No. 78 to No. 64 overnight. And if the team can continue to play with the mental toughness it displayed on Wednesday evening, Capel may soon be making headlines for leading Pitt to its first NCAA tournament berth since 2016.