Jeff Capel did not want to make Pitt’s 79-73 win about himself. Capel played for the Duke program under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski. He coached under him as assistant for seven season prior to taking the Pitt job. Capel was 0-2 entering Tuesday’s game against his former coach with losses in each of the previous two seasons.
Capel got the better of his coach on Tuesday. Pitt led nearly wire to wire against Duke, and proved it can belong with the upper echelon of the ACC with a statement win over the Blue Devils.
He became just the second former Duke assistant, joining Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, to ever put up a win over Krzyzewski and is the first former Duke player to notch a victory over the hall of fame coach. It is a big deal, but the third-year Pitt coach didn’t see it that way.
“I worry about our team and it’s big for our program and it’s big for our guys,” Capel told reporters after the game. “Obviously anytime as a program when you’re trying to build and trying to take a next step, anytime you can beat one of the blue bloods, that’s big. Look, you guys know me by now, none of this stuff is about me. I had my time when I played, this is about these guys and trying to make sure they have an unbelievable experience.”
Pitt shined on Tuesday in front of a national TV audience. Pitt sophomore forward Justin Champagnie played like a superstar with a 31-point outburst while also grabbing 14 rebounds and the program Capel is trying to build in Pittsburgh took a big step forward with the win over Duke.
In the years playing for and coaching at Duke, Capel has picked up plenty of lessons. The Pitt coach often talks about his team fighting for 40 minutes, and in a game against his former boss, the Duke team fought, too.
Pitt raced out to a 15-point lead in the early stages of the second half. Duke, however, did not go away on Tuesday. The Blue Devils mounted a spirited comeback behind the play of freshman forward Jalen Johnson, who was every bit as impressive as Champagnie was for the Panthers.
Capel expected the Duke run, and Pitt seemingly always found a way to answer on Tuesday night. Duke got the Pitt lead down to two points twice in the final five minutes, but the team responded. Pitt junior guard Xavier Johnson took over the game in the closing minutes with a basket, an assist, and two clutch free throws.
“We just told them that this is going to be a fight and it’s 40 minutes and we have to keep pushing,” he said. “We have to keep pushing. We were tired, we were fatigued. We didn’t do a good job of getting back in transition. They were all over the boards against us, but we were able to sustain our lead and then we were able to make a couple of pushes when they had it to three, or two – we got it back to six, we got it to seven.”
Capel is looking to build his own program, but the fight Duke displayed, is something he has tried to bring to Pittsburgh. The Panthers have found ways to win close games throughout the season, like the dramatic comebacks against Syracuse and Northwestern, or like Tuesday’s game when the Blue Devils stole the momentum from them. The team has managed to withstand punches and be in a position to win games in the closing minutes.
“It’s hard to be good. It’s hard, and there’s a certain level of commitment, discipline, of all these things that have to happen,” Capel said of his own team. “We’re learning how to do that. We’re not there yet. We’re not good yet, we’re becoming good and we want to stay hungry and keep getting better.”