PITTSBURGH (AP) — Xavier Johnson double-clutched as he pulled up from the free throw line in a tie game. The ball left the Pittsburgh sophomore point guard's hands and hit ... nothing. The miss was Johnson's 13th of the afternoon. Yet when he turned toward the bench, coach Jeff Capel's response was not what Johnson was expecting.
“Coach told me to shoot the ball,” Johnson said. “He yelled at me. I said, 'alright Coach.'"
The encouragement gave Johnson a welcome boost. So he kept right on firing, regaining his stroke in time to lead the Panthers to a 62-57 victory over Miami on Sunday.
Johnson scored seven of his 13 points during a game-ending 11-4 surge by the Panthers (14-8, 5-6 Atlantic Coast Conference), who beat the Hurricanes for the first time since 2014. His 3-pointer from the top of the key gave the Panthers a 54-53 lead. He followed with a 15-foot jumper on Pitt's next possession and capped the outburst by snaking through the lane for a layup with 40 seconds to go that pushed the Panthers' advantage to 58-55.
Capel said he's not in the habit of telling his players to pass up good shots. With the game tied at 51 and less than 4 minutes to play, he provided a reminder should they need one.
“I want my guys to have confidence in themselves like I have confidence in them,” Capel said.
That's typically not an issue for Johnson, who forced things at times on a day Pitt played without sharpshooting guard Ryan Murphy, who sat out while dealing with a concussion. Johnson took a series of questionable shots in the first half, including a pair of misses on transition 3-pointers on consecutive possessions. Yet when then Panthers needed someone to find a way to figure out Miami's zone, Johnson delivered.
“He was decisive,” Capel said. “He wasn’t hesitant. Those are big time plays anytime but especially when you’ve had the afternoon that he was having.”
Trey McGowens led Pitt with 17 points, including four free throws over the final 15 seconds. Au'Diese Toney scored 15 points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds for the Panthers, who snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Hurricanes.
Rodney Miller tied a career high with 16 points for Miami (11-10, 3-8). Isaiah Wong added 15 points, Harlond Beverly chipped in 11 and DJ Vasiljevic scored 10 to go with nine rebounds. The Hurricanes played without leading scorer Chris Lykes, who missed his third straight game with a groin injury. Miami overcame a sloppy first half in which it trailed by as much as 10 but Johnson and McGowens got loose late to send the Hurricanes to their fifth loss in their last six games.
“Those guards are good,” Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga said. “They didn't shoot great today, but the whole idea is ‘Win the game’ and they did what was necessary to win.”
The Hurricanes had a chance to tie it when they got the ball with 15 seconds to go but the possession ended with a long heave from well behind the 3-point line by Vasiljevic that smacked off the rim. McGowens chased down the rebound and made both free throws with 2 seconds to go to preserve the victory.
Pitt has now matched last season's win total with more than a month to go in Capel's second season on the bench. The schedule over the next four weeks isn't particularly daunting. Only one of the Panthers' final nine games are against teams currently in the Top 25. If they can find a way to finish .500 or better in the conference, there's a chance they can find themselves on the fringes of the NCAA tournament conversation just two years removed from going winless in league play.
“As a team, we taught ourselves we’re right there on the edge of making the tournament,” Johnson said. "The last 10 games we've got to go all out and compete at the highest level.”
Miami: Lykes' absence isn't just being felt in the scoring column. The Hurricanes turned it over nine times in the first half, leading to 10 points for the Panthers. “We should have gotten assists,” Larranaga said. "When you have live ball turnovers, there’s no way to get back defensively.”
Pitt: The Panthers are finding ways to win ugly. Four days after an emotional loss at Duke, Pitt stifled the Hurricanes for long stretches to overcome another up-and-down offensive performance by Johnson and McGowens. They have struggled at times when McGowens and Johnson aren't leading the way. Toney's emergence as an offensive threat is helping take some of the pressure off his backcourt mates.
Miami: Hosts N.C. State on Wednesday. The Wolfpack beat the Hurricanes 80-63 on Jan. 15.
Pitt: Travels to Notre Dame on Wednesday. The Panthers won the last meeting between the two schools, edging the Fighting Irish 56-53 in the 2019 regular season finale.
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