Pitt overwhelms Niagara in season opener
Pitt needed to feel good about itself in Friday night’s season opener. Playing Niagara certainly helped.
The Panthers presented a snarling defensive posture against their overmatched opponent, and the offense was the beneficiary in a rollicking 78-45 victory before 9,749 fans at Petersen Events Center.
The announcement that junior forward Durand Johnson was suspended for the season cast a pall over the team before tipoff, but the Panthers were all business when the lights came on.
“We did a good job defensively early, and that was key,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said.
Niagara shot 20.8 percent in the first half and 12 of 48 overall (25 percent).
“He preached (defense) a lot in practice,” sophomore Jamel Artis, who scored a team-high 14 points in his first college start, said about Dixon. “Every day.”
Artis’ role is expected to increase as a result of Johnson’s suspension. Other players who also saw their roles increase in the opener were sophomore Josh Newkirk (12 points), freshman Cameron Johnson (11 points) and sophomore Chris Jones (10).
Pitt shot 63.3 percent in the first half and led 15-1 and 32-4 in the first half before settling at 46-22 at halftime.
Dixon’s preseason vow to run more also was fulfilled — at least during the first game. The Panthers defended, rebounded and scored a flurry of baskets in transition.
Artis recorded the first basket of the season, a long 3-pointer that made it 4-0. Newkirk was a blur off the bench with a jumper, three-point play and fast-break dunk courtesy of an assist from junior center Joseph Uchebo, who was making his first college start. Cameron Johnson got in the act with three baskets.
Pitt’s first-half effort was so dominant that sophomore forward Michael Young, who averaged 22.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in two exhibition games but got into early foul trouble Friday, wasn’t really involved in the offense. The Panthers didn’t need him.
MAAC member Niagara, fielding one of the youngest teams in the nation with 13 underclassmen, certainly looked the part. The Purple Eagles were 3-17 last season and lost their best player, Antoine Mason, the nation’s leading returning scorer, who transferred to Auburn. Pitt hosts another MAAC opponent, Manhattan, on Dec. 17.
“Obviously, it had a lot to do with their defense,” Niagara coach Chris Casey said. “It just steamrolled from there.”
Pitt’s next game is 1 p.m. Sunday against Samford at Petersen Events Center in its home segment of the EA Sports Maui Invitational.
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].