Matthew Hurt entered Tuesday night’s game against Pittsburgh as the frontrunner for ACC Player of the Year.
The Panthers’ Justin Champagnie had other ideas.
Champagnie posted a game-high 31 points and 14 rebounds for the home squad in just his second game after returning from an LCL injury, leading Pittsburgh to the 79-73 victory at the Peterson Events Center. The Panthers led for the final 23 minutes of the contest.
In arguably his best collegiate performance, Jalen Johnson nearly led Duke all the way back from a double-digit second-half deficit. By the end of the night, the freshman forward had racked up 24 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.
Considering the fact that this was just his second appearance since returning from a foot injury of his own, Johnson's standout game surprised even Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
"With the limited amount of practices and working with his teammates—even conditioning wise, he still wears a boot off the court," Krzyzewski said. "That performance put us in a position to win."
Unfortunately for Duke (5-4, 3-2 in the ACC), its diaper dandy had to exit the contest a little earlier than expected, as Johnson fouled out with 2:15 remaining.
In spite of Johnson's absence, there was still some action to be had in the final frame. Not long after Duke's star fouled out, Jeremy Roach found Jordan Goldwire for a layup to cut the Panther lead to just two. At the other end, Xavier Johnson extended the Pittsburgh advantage to four, but a Hurt post up on the next possession cut the deficit in half again.
Even though Duke was right in the thick of things, an Au’Diese Toney slam with just under a minute left ended up being the dagger for the Panthers on their home floor.
Toney totaled 22 points and 11 rebounds, a performance that was completely overshadowed by Champagnie’s masterpiece.
As is seemingly routine this season, Duke got off to a poor start Tuesday night. Thanks to their trademark offensive rebounding and the vaunted duo of Champagnie and Toney, the Panthers jumped out to an 8-0 lead less than two minutes in.
"We have practiced so hard and tried different things," Krzyzewski said. "For me to have to call a timeout after two minutes is not acceptable."
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Duke settled in as the first half went on, however, as the freshman trio of Roach, Johnson and DJ Steward helped the Blue Devils claw back into the contest. Roach and Steward attacked the basket early and often Tuesday, while Johnson appeared to be back in basketball shape and was moving well on both ends of the floor from the moment he stepped on the court.
One stat that stood out was the rebounding totals—Duke outperformed Pittsburgh 43-42 on the glass despite the Panthers (8-2, 4-1) entering the game second in the country in rebounds per game. Clearly, Duke was ready for the challenge in the paint.
"Main thing on the board was be hungry, have toughness [and] we gotta box out," Johnson said regarding the Blue Devils' mindset on rebounding throughout the night. "It wasn't foreign to us. We knew the game plan and what we had to do to win. We just really didn't execute it like we should have."
With a 31-29 lead at the 3:52 mark of the first period, the Blue Devils appeared to have things headed in the right direction after a sluggish start to the contest. The Panthers just refused to roll over, though, going on a 14-3 spurt to close out the half. Foul trouble for Hurt and Johnson proved difficult for Duke to overcome during that stretch, as Pittsburgh excelled at spreading the floor and finding open shooters.
All hope seemed lost for Duke when Pittsburgh extended its lead to 15 early in the second half, but Johnson upped the ante and brought the Blue Devils back into the game with some highlight-reel plays. The Milwaukee native made you realize exactly why he was at one point a top-four recruit in the Class of 2020.
"The stuff he brings to our team is like no other. I mean, he really can do it all," Moore said. "Sometimes we play through him, he made a fantastic pass, he made the shots. He did everything he's supposed to do. That's why having him back is definitely a plus for us."
Moore finished with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting, his second-highest scoring total of the season.
The Blue Devils will look to rebound at Louisville Saturday.