PITTSBURGH — Jeff Capel noticed the fearlessness in Trey McGowens, Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney right away. The way they played, it was almost impossible to miss. Capel leaned on that inherent daring when he made his recruiting pitch to them last spring just days after taking over the rebuilding project at Pittsburgh.
Join me, Capel said. Let’s bring the swagger back together.
Less than nine months later, what Capel cautioned would be a lengthy process appears to be well ahead of schedule behind his three precocious freshmen, who have shrugged off the program’s regrettable recent past with a competitive fire that points to a promising future.
McGowens poured in 30 points, Johnson added 16 — including consecutive buckets in the final four minutes after Florida State cut Pitt’s lead to five — and the Panthers pulled away from the 11th-ranked Seminoles for a 75-62 victory on Monday night.
“All three of them are naturally competitive,” Capel said after Pitt’s first win over a ranked team in nearly two years. “They have a toughness about them and they aren’t afraid. We’re trying to develop that, trying to make that the culture. Toughness, togetherness. Today was a big step.”
McGowens led the way. Less than a week after setting a school record for a freshman by scoring 33 points against Louisville, the 6-foot-3, 185-pound McGowens threatened that mark by attacking the bigger, deeper Seminoles repeatedly, often resulting in an acrobatic layup or a foul or — occasionally — both. McGowens made 18 of 19 free throws for the Panthers (12-5, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who outscored the Seminoles 38-20 at the line.
“I just feel like that’s how we like to play,” McGowens said. “We’ve got some competitors. That’s just what we like to do.”
Trent Forrest scored 19 points for the Seminoles (13-4, 1-3), who lost for the third time in four games. And unlike their setback against No. 1 Duke last Saturday — when the Blue Devils won it at the buzzer — this was no last-second stunner. Pitt never trailed over the final 11 minutes, though Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton downplayed the idea his team was flat after the near-miss against the Blue Devils.
“You don’t ever want to accept that,” Hamilton said. “It was an emotional loss for us, but that’s part of what you have to prepare for in the ACC. Pitt lost Saturday too. They bounced back and we didn’t.”
The Panthers gave away size at nearly every position. Yet rather than try to shoot over the Seminoles, Pitt decided to try and run through them.
The Panthers drove to the basket all night, particularly McGowens. He missed a breakaway dunk early on but tried to go right back to the rack by attempting to rise over 6-foot-10, 250-pound Mfiondu Kabengele. That dunk missed as well, but McGowens drew the foul and appeared to send a message that Pitt would not be intimidated.
“We feel like we are going to fight every time we play,” Capel said. “If we fight and we play with some semblance of intelligence, we’ll have a chance.”
That mindset helped the Panthers take a 36-34 halftime lead despite making just eight shots in the opening 20 minutes. While Florida State did at times dominate the lane — outscoring Pitt 30-20 in the paint and having an 18-7 advantage in second-chance points — the Panthers simply kept coming.
McGowens hit a 3-pointer to give Pitt the lead for good with 11:22 to go. Florida State fell behind by 10 but trimmed it to 60-55 after a pair of free throws by Forrest with 4:25 to go. Johnson shook off a seven-turnover night by hitting a jumper and then a driving layup to help push the advantage back to double digits.
By the end, the fans mocked Florida State by doing the school’s war chant and then followed it up by shouting “We want Duke!” The top-ranked Blue Devils visit next Tuesday in a game that no longer looks like a mismatch.
“We’ve got two (ACC wins),” said center Terrell Brown, one of the few holdovers from a club that went winless in ACC play last season under coach Kevin Stallings. “We have more to get.”
Florida State: The Seminoles need to make more shots, particularly on the road. Florida State shot just 34 percent from the floor in a loss to Virginia last week and had similar issues against the Panthers. Florida State hit 20 of 58 field goals (35 percent), including just 2 of 22 3-pointers.
Pitt: The Panthers have regained their homecourt advantage at the Petersen Events Center. Once one of the toughest places to play in the Big East — an advantage that has eased a bit since the move to the ACC — Pitt has now won consecutive home games against teams that figure to be a factor in the conference. The Panthers might not be far from joining that conversation.