After a dismal three-game stretch that threatened to define the season, Pitt got back on track on Wednesday night at the Petersen Events Center with an 83-72 win over No. 16 Virginia Tech. And the catalyst behind the winning effort was Panthers point guard Xavier Johnson, who put the team on his back and scored a career-high 32 points. Johnson also set a Pitt record for points off the bench.
Johnson, the once undisputed star of the team, had struggled offensively during the three-game losing streak that Pitt rode into the midweek game. During that stretch, he had averaged 8.6 points per game and was especially feckless in the opening halves of those matchups, as he averaged just 2.3 points in those periods. But on Wednesday night, a wake-up call from Panthers head coach Jeff Capel appeared to reinvigorate Johnson.
For just the second time in Johnson’s three-year Pitt career, Capel declined to start the Woodbridge, Virginia, native. The decision sent a message, and it seems it was received by the time Johnson took the floor with 16:22 left in the half. In response, the point guard went off for 14 points in 15 minutes in the first half and had personally willed Pitt into a 31-31 tie with Virginia Tech by halftime. And while he had already made his point, Johnson continued to drive it home in the second half.
In the final 20 minutes of the matchup, Johnson tacked on 18 additional points. And by the end of the game, he also had seven assists, five rebounds and two steals and had just two turnovers and two fouls. Johnson’s 4-for-7 performance from beyond the arc led the team in both makes and percentage, and Johnson got to the line and converted as well, going 6-for-7 from the charity stripe.
After the game, Johnson discussed his recent struggles and how the benching affected him.
“I felt like I haven’t been performing like I was supposed to perform lately,” Johnson said after the game. “So to me, [the benching] woke me up and made me more humble, and I just came into the game ready to play. ... [The benching] just helped me relax, to be honest, because I saw what the team was doing defensively and offensively. So when I came in the game, everything just seemed to be slow.”
All told, it was a night to remember for Johnson, who not only topped his 30-point performance against Clemson on Jan. 29, 2019, which had long stood as a personal best, but also posted the highest point total by an individual in an ACC game this season. Johnson’s 32 points topped 31-point games by Wake Forest small forward Ismael Massoud, Georgia Tech power forward Moses Wright and Pitt teammate Justin Champagnie.
In addition to that, Johnson’s status as a regular starter who just happened to be coming off the bench helped him carve his name into the Pitt record books. His 32 points were the most ever scored by a Pitt player coming off the bench, and with his performance, Johnson broke a longstanding record set by Clyde Vaughan against James Madison on Dec. 20, 1980. In that game, Vaughan came off the bench and scored 29 points. Forty years would pass before the feat was repeated at Pitt.
Now, with a career performance in the books, the task at hand for Johnson and his teammates will be to remain consistent moving forward. Often, how a team should go about that seems abstract and hard to pin down, but Johnson noted after the game that he had spoken to Champagnie and Au’Diese Toney about accountability and supporting each other as leaders of the team. They also put their words into action on Wednesday night, so there’s hope that Pitt turned a corner and could close out the season strong.