Lead evaporates in final minutes as men’s basketball falls to Pitt

By Ben Moskow

Northwestern Men’s Basketball head coach Chris Collins likes to talk about his “young team.” But in the final minutes of Wednesday’s nationally televised matchup against the Pittsburgh Panthers, his squad looked completely unfamiliar with the basics of basketball.

In arguably the worst in a long line of gut-punching losses during the Collins era, Northwestern (2-1, 0-0 B1G) squandered a five-point lead, and perhaps any high hopes fans may have had for the program this year, with a minute to go to fall to Pitt 71-70 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Wildcats never trailed until the final six seconds, when Pitt forward Justin Champagnie flushed home a go-ahead, game-winning dunk over … no one.

Northwestern built an early lead in large part due to anemic shooting from Pitt. The Panthers missed their first 12 field goals and made just three of their first 26 field goal attempts, but the ‘Cats were only slightly better. With 8:22 to play in the first half, the score was a paltry 17-8, Northwestern. Pitt managed just 22 points in the period and NU held a 12-point advantage going into the locker room for halftime.

Yet this would not stand for long. Pitt exploded out of the break to the tune of 49 second-half points on 53.1% shooting. Guard Xavier Johnson had 16 of his team-high 21 points in the period and was near-automatic from downtown, converting on four of five threes on the half.

For most of the second half, the Wildcat lead bent but didn’t break. The Panthers pulled within three with 13:50 to play and a layup from guard Au’Diese Toney cut the deficit all the way to one with 10:17 remaining. But the ‘Cats continued to hold on, buoyed by some stellar post play from center Ryan Young. Two Young free-throws gave Northwestern a 66-58 lead with under four minutes to go. Young finished with 13 points and seven rebounds and went a perfect 7-of-7 from the charity stripe.

What came next was stomach-churning. Pitt jumped all over the Wildcats to the tune of a 13-4 run to close out the game. Audige gave fans hope by draining a turnaround jumper off a smooth pivot with 2:07 left to make the NU lead 68-63. Johnson answered with two free throws, but Miller Kopp then hit a 10-footer with 1:27 to play to make the lead five once again. Kopp finished with eight points, six rebounds and two steals.

Those were the last points Northwestern put on the board. The final minute consisted of the ‘Cats botching inbound play execution three times, including a turnover that led to an easy Pitt layup, two missed free throws from Boo Buie and generally apathetic defense. With Northwestern clinging onto a one-point lead with 16 seconds remaining, Buie had the chance to extend the lead to three, but the misses left the door open for Pitt to jump out on top on Champagnie’s slam. The Wildcats’ final shot attempt came in the form of a heaved back-to-basket three from Audige that fell several feet of the basket. Audige finished with 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting.

While Northwestern led the whole way, it had no answers for Champagnie on the glass; he collected a staggering 20 rebounds to go with 20 points. On the game, Pitt out-rebounded the Wildcats 54-34, exposing NU’s small-ball strategy. It is worth keeping an eye on what adjustments Collins will make with rebounding machines Luka Garza and Kofi Cockburn looming in conference play.

The ‘Cats will look to put this ugly loss behind them against SIU-Edwardsville Sunday at home at 3 p.m. Central Time. The conference slate will begin Dec. 20 at Welsh-Ryan Arena against No. 8 Michigan State. You can tune into all Men’s Basketball home games on WNUR Sports.

For more, check out Eric Rynston-Lobel’s spreadsheet to see why Northwestern should have won this game and many more during the Collins era.