Pitt opens Jeff Capel era with victory against Youngstown State
Pitt’s basketball team shared Petersen Events Center with 4,729 patrons Tuesday night, winning for the first time in 20 games, 69-53 over Youngstown State.
The atmosphere was loud. The pace was fast — but sloppy — with Pitt committing 16 turnovers and forcing 20.
Pitt excited the crowd with five attempted dunks — two missed — and two technical fouls, one from coach Jeff Capel in his first game as the Panthers’ coach.
“I apologized,” he said. “I need to be better in that situation.”
Freshman guard Au’Diese Toney didn’t mind.
“We see how hungry he is, the fight,” said Toney, one of three freshmen in Pitt’s starting lineup. “That’s what he said at the beginning of the game: We need to fight. When we got a tech, we came together in the huddle and said, ‘We have to fight. We did it as a group.’ ”
Guards Trey McGowens (17), Xavier Johnson (16) and Toney (12), who will be expected to lead the program now and for the next two or three years, are the first three freshmen to start an opener together in Pitt history. They responded to the confidence placed on them, hitting a collective 16 of 35 shots, only eight of which were 3-pointers. Junior transfer Malik Ellison hit 6 of 10 and ended up with 13 points.
“They just wore us out going to the basket,” said YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun, whose team was 8-24 last season.
Capel said the game was less about offense than it was his players deciding to play defense after leading only 27-24 at halftime. Overall, YSU tried 38 3-pointers and made only eight.
“The way we did it on the defensive end is something we should be proud of, not satisfied with, but proud of,” Capel said. “To have four new guys (including Ellison) for the first time wearing a Pitt jersey in a real game to come out and perform like that on the defensive end, I thought was big time.
“With them shooting a lot of 3s, we knew we could turn those misses, if we contested them, into offense. When we broke the game open in the second half, we were finally able to get out in transition. We were finally able to rebound.”
Toney, who led the team with nine rebounds, started in place of Jared Wilson-Frame, the team’s only scholarship senior, who was suspended for one game for violating a team rule in the spring. Capel said Wilson-Frame, who is Pitt’s leading returning scorer (13 per game), will play Friday against VMI.
“Coach said, ‘Next man up,’ ” center Kenny Chukwuka said. “Young bulls picked it up.”
The theme of the night, however, was turning the page with youth while experiencing victory for the first time since Dec. 22, 2017. Chukwuka, a backup, played 26 minutes and changed the game with his eight rebounds, Capel said. After the game, he said he just wants to forget that 19-game losing streak.
“The first thing (Capel) said (when he was first met the team) was, ‘I’m not going to talk about last year. Last year is over,’ ” Chukwuka said. “Last year wasn’t any fun for anybody to watch. It was less fun to play in. This year, we’re trying to turn everything up.”
Capel said that starts with his players’ hunger to improve. When everyone has gone home and the scoreboard is shut down, Capel said you can find Johnson, McGowens and Toney and others in the gym.
“Those three freshmen are always in the gym, always,” he said. “At night, they’re in here late. They want to be really good. We have a lot of our guys who are in the gym a lot.
“Sometimes, you have to rev them down. That’s good. I’d rather have to rev them down. It’s hard to rev a guy up.”
Capel said he saw that attitude while recruiting them.
“Those kids decided to come here. It wasn’t popular,” he said. “They never asked, ‘What about (returnees) Malik or Shamiel (Stevenson) or Khameron (Davis). They really didn’t care who was here. They felt they could come in and contribute. Same thing with Au’Diese.”
It’s an attitude Capel said will be necessary to carry his young team through the season.
“We need to be hungry every time we step on the court,” he said. “We need to a have the mindset it’s an opportunity for us to get better. That requires discipline. That requires hunger. That requires focus, attention to detail.
“We can’t come to practice with an attitude, ‘I just want to get through it. I hope it’s not hard today.’ That’s a losing mentality.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.