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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern blows double-digit halftime lead in late loss to Pitt

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Yikes.

EVANSTON, Illinois — If the first two games of Northwestern’s season felt different from 2019-20, Wednesday night was a reminder the Wildcats haven’t quite put to bed last year’s struggles. NU (2-1) let an 11-point halftime lead slip away and Pittsburgh’s Justin Champagnie scored the go-ahead dunk with 5.6 seconds left to give the Panthers (3-1) a 71-70 win.

Three Wildcats scored in double digits on a night in which NU shot just 36.8 percent from the field as a team. Boo Buie paced the ‘Cats with 14 points despite hitting only two of his nine shots.

Xavier Johnson (21 points), Au’Diese Toney (18 points) and Champagnie (20 points) did the heavy lifting for their squad, combining for 59 of the Panthers’ 71 points. Champagnie had an outstanding 20-point, 20-rebound night.

In a sloppy first half that featured 15 turnovers, the ‘Cats jumped to a 7-0 lead thanks to a field goal and a three from sophomore forward Robbie Beran and a bucket from sophomore guard Chase Audige. Pitt started just 3-of-25 from the field through the first 12 minutes and couldn’t get anything to go down from the paint.

Northwestern set the tone through quick and frenetic play that included taking several contested jumpers. Ty Berry came off the bench and immediately hit a three right in the face of a Pitt defender and also displayed his passing skills with a fantastic dish to Ryan Young.

Pitt shot poorly the entire first half, as the Panthers converted just three of their first 25 attempts and only eight of their first 39 shots. The ‘Cats weren’t able to take much advantage early, though, connecting on just 11 of 31 field goal attempts.

Down nine, Pitt came out of a media timeout and scored a quick six points to bring the game within three. The Wildcats countered with their own 10-2 run, highlighted by a vicious Beran swat at the rim and capped off by a silky smooth step back three from Audige on which he was fouled.

The only thing keeping the Panthers in it was their ability to rebound offensively. Eleven of their 22 first half points came on second chances. The Wildcats took an 11-point lead into the locker room.

Champagnie totaled eight points and 10 rebounds through the first 20 minutes of play. Only four Panthers scored in the first half, compared to eight different Wildcats.

The Panthers found their shooting touch in the second half, outscoring the Wildcats 15-6 in the first 6:44 to shrink the NU lead to 40-37. They got back in it via the three-ball, hitting six of their first eight from downtown.

Just as the Wildcats lead began to shrink, Young finished an inside and-one to swing the momentum back to the ‘Cats and bring the lead back to six. Johnson answered with a three-point play of his own, but with all three coming from behind the arc to bring him to eleven second half points in less than nine minutes of second half play. Johnson starred after halftime, finishing with 21 points on 6-of-16 shooting.

Pitt made it a one-point game with 7:19 left after Toney hit a three and would not go away. The ‘Cats stretched their lead to as many as nine during a run in which they made six of their next seven shots and carried a 64-58 lead at the under-four media timeout with 3:59 left.

After two Pitt free throws brought the game within three, junior forward Miller Kopp nailed a mid-range jumper with less than five seconds left on the shot clock to put the ‘Cats up five with 1:27 left to play. Toney hit two free throws to shrink Northwestern’s lead to three with 34 seconds left to play before Buie succumbed to the pressure of a double team off of the inbound pass and lost the ball, leading to a made Pitt layup with 27 seconds left.

The Wildcats nearly couldn’t inbound the ball again, but Pete Nance dribbled away from two defenders to find Buie, who was fouled on the attempt. The sophomore guard critically missed both free throws, though, and it cost the Wildcats dearly.

Following Buie’s missed free throws, Champagnie slammed an emphatic dunk home to give Pitt its first lead of the game, 71-70, with just 5.8 seconds left. On the final possession, Northwestern could not get a clean look as Audige heaved an off-balance, contested three that didn’t even get to the rim.

Northwestern will look to rebound against SIU-Edwardsville at home on Sunday at 3 p.m. CST.