Pittsburgh looks to sustain momentum vs. Northern Illinois

NCAA Basketball

Pittsburgh’s Xavier Johnson admitted the team was down after a surprising opening-game loss to St. Francis (Pa.) and that the team paid the price in practice.

Johnson led a much more spirited effort against Drexel and will lead the Panthers (1-1) against Northern Illinois (0-2) on Saturday in their third straight home game to start the season.

Pitt’s season did not begin as hoped, losing 80-70 to the Red Flash on Nov. 25 as the Panthers committed 22 turnovers — seven by Johnson — and shot 40 percent from the field. Johnson responded with 27 points and eight assists in the 83-74 win on Saturday.

“That (Drexel) loss hurt, it really did,” Johnson said. “Practice was a little bit down. No one talked. We had two practices back-to-back (Tuesday) and today was just a different day. The sun was up, everyone was just happy and forgot about the last loss.”

Au’Diese Toney added 20 points and six assists and Justin Champagnie contributed 19 points and seven boards as the Panthers shot 62 percent from the floor, including making 26 of 31 attempts from inside the arc.

The Pitt trio is combining to average 53.5 points, 18 rebounds, 13 assists and four steals per game through two contests, but nobody else is averaging more than five points or 4.5 rebounds.

Northern Illinois has had a tough time moving on without Eugene German, who finished as NIU’s all-time leader in points (2,203) and 3-pointers (239) while placing fifth on the MAC’s all-time scoring list, before graduating.

The Huskies, who were 18-13 last season, lost at home to Illinois-Chicago and SIU-Edwardsville, averaging 57 points on 40 percent shooting, including 21 percent from deep. German averaged 20 points alone last year and 33 percent from the arc on seven attempts per game.

The defense hasn’t been that effective either. The Huskies allowed the Cougars to shoot 51 percent in Wednesday’s 73-53 loss.

“Unfortunately, it was not the result we wanted,” Northern Illinois coach Mark Montgomery said. “Too many turnovers, we got off to a slow start, defense wasn’t as good. We didn’t make any outside shots.”

Sophomore Tyler Cochran (14.0 PPG) and junior Darius Deane (13.0), a transfer from Southern Illinois, are the only players averaging double figures. Cochran tied a career-high with 15 points, while Beane added 13 points in the loss.

Pitt stopped Northern Illinois 59-50 last year in the first game between the schools, as the Panthers held the Huskies to 20 points on 30 percent shooting from the field in the second half.

–Field Level Media

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