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Pitt Panthers down Northwestern to claim Tip-Off title

November 29, 2019
By CJ HADDAD ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

The Pitt Panthers were crowned the 2019 Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off champions Wednesday night, defeating Northwestern, 72-59, behind tournament MVP Justin Champagnie's game, and career-high 21 points.

The Panthers (6-2) out-rebounded and out-shot the Wildcats (3-3) on their way to the tournament title. A strong second half -- one in which Pitt shot 53.1 percent from the floor -- was the difference, as the Panthers had just a two-point lead at the half.

"Well first and foremost, I'm really proud of my team," said Pitt Head Coach Jeff Capel post-game. "Any time you have a chance to win a championship, it's a big-time thing, and it's certainly something that we don't take for granted. We're appreciative of the opportunity."

Article Photos

The Pitt Panthers on the court after winning the 2019 Rocket Mortgage Fort-Myers Tip-Off. They defeated Northwestern on their way to the title.


Capel was pleased with the grit the Panthers played with all night, notably on the defensive end, and trusting that shots would eventually fall.

"Very proud of the fight we showed. I thought we defended at a high level throughout the game. I thought we fought. And I thought in the second half we were able to get into a rhythm offensively. For us to have a two-point lead at halftime shooting the way that we did is a testament to how well we defended. And in the second half, you know, we talked to our guys at halftime about taking those shots, take them with confidence, don't hesitate, we believe in you, they're our shots and it was good to see guys step up and make some plays."

Champagnie, a freshman, certainly didn't get off to the start he wanted to offensively, but turned things around in a big way to propel his team to earn the rights to "Own The Fort."

The 6-foot-6, 200-pound Brooklyn native was just 2-of-9 shooting at the break, including 0-for-5 from three-point range. In the second half, Champagnie was 7-of-11 from the field and hit his final three three-point shots -- all crucial buckets for a Panthers team trying to hold onto a late lead.

"Coach just kept telling me to keep shooting the ball, it's going to drop. Just be confident in your shot -- and so were my teammates, so I just kept shooting, " Champagnie said.

Capel was proud of the way Champagnie bounced back.

"You know for Justin as a freshman in what -- I think this is his eighth game -- you know, for him to miss shots the way that he did, but to have the confidence in himself to not hesitate is a big time thing," Capel said. "And one of the coolest moments for me was when he made his first three, as soon as Xavier passed it to him, he yelled to him 'knock it down.' Those are big moments -- and it's moments where you grow together and you understand how much you need each other. So, I think we took a giant step down here. We're appreciative, we're grateful, and we're looking forward to getting back home and enjoying Thanksgiving."

Pitt sophomore point guard and All-Tournament Team selection, Xavier Johnson, said this tournament win is crucial in getting the program to where it wants to be in a tough ACC.

"It's just one step to get Pitt back on track," Johnson said.

The hard-nose defender, play-maker and team facilitator said his style of basketball is something he prides himself on.

"My mindset is to just be myself, that's how I got here, that's what I'm good at," Johnson said of his play.

Johnson finished with 11 points, six rebounds and eight assists in 38 minutes of play.

On the Northwestern side of things, Pat Spencer continued to impress offensively, following up his 23-point performance against Bradley in game one with 18 more against the Panthers.

His effort, along with 16 points off the bench from teammate Boo Buie, was not enough to overcome a Pitt team that locked things down on defense in the second half and out-rebounded the Wildcats 44-29.

"Well, congrats to Pittsburgh. I thought they played very hard -- a very tough-minded, defensive team," said NU Head Coach Chris Collins. "And then they got timely shooting when they needed it. You know, it was one of those games where neither team was functioning offensively in terms of putting it into the basket. It was kind of a slug fest. Both teams played really hard. I thought there were little plays along the way that set themselves apart. Obviously, their offensive rebounding -- the 12 offensive rebounds -- was a factor. And I thought their two big guys, Champagnie and Hamilton, did a great job for them. And we knew how good their guards were. And those guys played well. You know, we kept battling, I thought we got better down here. We played hard until the finish."

An interesting connection between these two school come via their head coaches -- both Duke guards in the '90s and both assistants as part of coach Mike Krzyzewski's staff.

"You know, once you get out there between the lines, it's competition. But it was weird looking down there," Capel said. "He's one of my closest friends. We talk every day. And since he took that job, I feel like I've been right there every step of the way as he's built this program and run his program. And once I took this job, he's been right there with me. And so, we've talked about each other's teams a lot. And to coach against him, you know, it was a little bit weird. But again, for the 40 minutes, it was competition, like when we were in school together playing pick-up. And afterwards you hug, and we'll get back to talking all the time."

Collins agreed that once the game starts, all the focus is on his team and his players, but that their bond and friendship is a special one.

"Jeff is someone who - he's part of my family," Collins said. "Our families consider each other families. His kids call me uncle, my kids call him uncle. So, you know, he's someone I've been with as a player, shared a lot of battles with him on that front. We're very close friends. You know, as young guys, our friendship has continued throughout the years. We've always been there for each other. And you're lucky in this profession if you have guys that you can lean on, you know, because it is tough. You go through highs and lows; you go through different situations. You know, as a head coach, to have someone like him that I can call, that I can be vulnerable with, that I can share my struggles, my frustrations, my goods He's always been a great friend for me in that regard, so hopefully I've been that for him."

Both coaches, Johnson and Champagnie said the tournament -- only in its second year -- was "first-class."

"We're appreciative of the hospitality here shown by everyone in Fort Myers and especially everyone that hosted this tournament," Capel said.

Johnson said he and his teammates only grew closer thanks to their trip to Southwest Florida.

"Really good," Johnson said of the team's time in Fort Myers. "We bonded together. I feel that we love each other more -- more and more every day."

Bradley (5-2) defeated Kansas State (4-2), 73-60 in the third place game.

Braves senior guard Nate Kennell led all scorers with 22 points and shot 6-for-8 from downtown.

The All-Tournament team included: Champagnie (MVP), Johnson, Kennell, Spencer and Bradley's Elijah Childs.

The 2020 field was also announced on Wednesday. Next year, Butler, Colorado, Wisconsin and South Florida will take part in the tournament, Nov 23-25 of 2020.

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-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj



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