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Pitt edges St. John’s 59-57 in thriller at Madison Square Garden

Pitt headed to Madison Square Garden on Saturday to face St. John’s in the Gotham Classic in a tilt that initially promised a matchup of the Champagnie brothers, Justin of Pitt and Julian of St. John’s, when it was announced last year. However, with Justin Champagnie now plying his trade with the Toronto Raptors and Julian Champagnie a late scratch from the game due to a positive COVID-19 test, all that was left was a contest between two teams looking for their first win over a high-major opponent. But it would be close from wire to wire, and Pitt would come out on top, notching a 59-57 win.

The Panthers held their own early in the matchup with the Red Storm, with Jamarius Burton, Mouhamadou Gueye and John Hugley all chipping in to help their team keep pace with the hosts. However, with the midway point of the first half approaching, Pitt allowed St. John’s to pull ahead 20-11, as missed shots and turnovers piled up. In fact, in the first seven minutes of the game, the Panthers handed the ball over to the Red Storm six times. Those issues would be compounded by St. John’s smothering defense, which effectively shut down Hugley for the majority of the first half with constant double-teams.

However, Pitt would continue to fight its way back into the game, and a scoring spurt that included a three-pointer by Onyebuchi Ezeakudo, a layup by Mouhamoudou Gueye, two made foul shots by Femi Odukale and a layup by Noah Collier would narrow St. John’s lead to 28-27 with four and a half minutes left in the first half. St. John’s would maintain its slim advantage with just over two minutes left to play and the score at 30-29. And after an authoritative dunk by Joel Soriano of St. John’s and an athletic layup through contact by Femi Odukale, it would be 34-31 at the half with the Johnnies out in front of the Panthers.

Esahia Nyiwe of St. John’s opened up the second half with a slam off a Posh Alexander dime, saddling Pitt with a five-point deficit. And during a subsequent timeout, the officials would review a two-point shot by Tareq Coburn from the first half and determine that it was worth three points, adding another point to the St. John’s total. That would be followed by a missed dunk by John Hugley and Pitt’s 14th turnover of the game. But after a dunk by Jamarius Burton and a made free throw by Hugley, Pitt would again be within three points of St. John’s, with the score 37-34.

Mouhamadou Gueye would knock down four straight free throws and come up with a dunk in roughly a minute and a half to pull the Panthers within four of the Red Storm, and a layup by John Hugley would make it 44-42, with the hosts ahead by just two. About a minute later, a three by Jamarius Burton would give Pitt a 45-44 lead – its first of the second half. However, it would quickly be conceded, as Joel Soriano knocked down a jumper to make it 46-45, and by the midway point of the second half, it would be 48-46, with the Johnnies in front.

The game would remain close as the minutes ticked off the clock, and with three minutes left to play, Pitt would be within one point of St. John’s, with the score 53-52 after two made free throws by Jamarius Burton. Burton would get to the line on each of his next two possessions and knock down all of his foul shots to give Pitt a 56-55 lead with just under two minutes left. Seconds later, a block by Mouhamadou Gueye would preserve Pitt’s narrow lead, and a subsequent traveling call on Stef Smith would give the Panthers possession with just over a minute on the clock, setting up another dramatic finish.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, a traveling call against them would deny them an opportunity to pull ahead late. It also handed the ball back to the Johnnies with 31 seconds left on the clock. However, a miss by Posh Alexander would give Pitt the ball back, and a subsequent foul would put William Jeffress on the charity stripe, where he would sink one shot to put his team up 57-55. Dylan Addae-Wusu of St. John’s would then get fouled and make both shots to tie the game 57-57 with eight seconds remaining. On Pitt’s next possession, Jamarius Burton would drive down the court and knock down a jumper to give Pitt a 59-57 win.

Jamarius Burton not only scored the game-winner for Pitt, but he also led the team in scoring, with 20 points. Mouhamadou Gueye ranked second on the team, with 15 points in his return to his hometown. And the efforts of Burton and Gueye were enough for the Panthers to overcome quiet days for John Hugley and Femi Odukale, who combined for just 13 points on Saturday afternoon.

With the win, Pitt improved to 4-7 on the season and notched its first victory over a high-major opponent. Meanwhile, its former Big East rival fell to 8-3 and remains winless against high-major foes, with losses to Indiana, Kansas and Pitt now marring its record. Pitt will get one more opportunity to add what should be an easy win to its total prior to the start of ACC play when it heads home to face Jacksonville. Like the Johnnies, the Dolphins have yet to top a high-major opponent, logging losses to Georgia, Minnesota and UCF.