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Ithiel Horton becoming a reliable contributor at Pitt

The Delaware transfer has averaged 13.8 points per game and made 44.4 percent of his threes in Pitt's last five games

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 14 Pitt at Georgia Tech Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Earlier this season, Pitt shooting guard Ithiel Horton was struggling to find his form, as he exceeded five points just once in his first five games. Those days now seem in the distant past, as the Delaware transfer is currently on a hot streak that has seen him score in double figures in four of his last five games. And as a result of his recent run of form, he has become one of Pitt's most reliable contributors.

In Pitt's last five games, Horton has averaged 13.8 points and 2.8 rebounds per game while shooting 44.4 percent three-point range. All of those figures are improvements over those Horton posted in the team's first 11 matchups of the season, as he averaged 8.3 points and 2.4 rebounds per game and shot 33.9 percent from three-point range during that span.

The shooting guard’s production over the last five games compares favorably with Pitt’s other backcourt starters, as Horton has generally surpassed the contributions of Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney in that span, barring Johnson’s assists and Toney’s rebounds. For comparison, Johnson has averaged 13.4 points and 2.4 rebounds and shot 37.5 percent from long range over the last five games, and Toney has averaged 10.6 points and 4.6 rebounds and shot 20.0 percent from beyond the arc.

Even Horton’s free-throw percentage has shot up from 75.0 percent to 83.3 percent, and he has made it to the foul line once a game over the Panthers’ last five contests as opposed to 0.3 times per game before. And once again, that compares favorably to Johnson, whose 79.4 free-throw percentage through the first 11 games has dipped to 78.9 percent in the last five, and Toney, who has shot 71.4 percent from the foul line in that span after shooting 66.2 percent in his first 10 games.

With that said, the five-game stretch has not been without incident for Horton, as he notably walked off the court, passed Pitt head coach Jeff Capel without breaking stride, and headed into the locker room early in the team’s 84-58 loss to Notre Dame on Jan. 30. Horton started the next game on the bench with Johnson, who has struggled with turnovers, offensive fouls and sloppy play in general this season.

The benching seemed to send a message that resonated with Horton, as he scored 15 points in Pitt’s 83-72 win over Virginia Tech on Feb. 3 and went on to score 15-plus points in each of the next two games. But more importantly, it seems Horton has given some thought to how he reacts to mistakes and frustration during games and re-evaluated his approach.

“I took a step back from myself and just said, ‘Hey, listen — you’ve played this game all your life. Just go out there and do what you do,’” Horton told Craig Meyer of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this week. “‘If you make a mistake, so what? Get back on defense and get it back. Get a rebound, get a steal.’”

Clearly, that mentality has been paying off for Horton, and he will try to maintain his form in a tilt with NC State on Wednesday.

Pitt is 2-19 against NC State and 0-4 since Jeff Capel became the team’s head coach. The most recent loss came on March 11, 2020, when the Wolfpack decisively defeated the Panthers 73-58. The difference between that game and the previous three losses under Capel, which were all by six points or fewer, was three-point shooting, as Pitt made at least 40 percent of its long-distance shots in the first three games and 20 percent last time.

On paper, it appears an opportunity exists for Horton to have an impact on the matchup with NC State, as he has been taking 7.2 three-point shots per game over the last five games and sinking 44.4 percent of them, while NC State has struggled to defend threes, allowing ACC opponents to make 37.8 percent of their attempts. That mark ranks 12th in the ACC, and the only teams that have fared worse are Duke, Miami and North Carolina, two of whom Pitt previously defeated this season.

Of course, Horton is just one piece of the puzzle for Pitt, which will also need to have Justin Champagnie, Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney at their best to prevail over NC State and most of the team’s remaining opponents, if recent history is any indicator.

But with Horton now chipping in reliably, there is reason for optimism as Pitt wades into its final five games of the season, as his shooting has helped the Panthers overcome Virginia Tech and give Virginia and Georgia Tech a fight. And with winnable games against NC State and Wake Forest in the offing along with a postponed matchup with Boston College presumably still on the horizon, Pitt could finish with its best record under Capel yet and its first winning record since 2016.