With just one loss on the season and an undefeated record in ACC play, the last thing the Pittsburgh Panthers needed was any sort of injury to break their momentum. Unfortunately, the Panthers got just that when 6-foot-6 sophomore forward Durand Johnson suffered a torn ACL and was expected to be out for the rest of the college basketball season.
Even as well as Pittsburgh was playing, fans expected a bit of a letdown when the Panthers had to hit the road Tuesday night for their first full game without Johnson in a matchup against Georgia Tech. Johnson had scored in double figures in eight games this season in the sixth man role, and with Pittsburgh being more traditionally known for its defense than its offense, any impact to the Panthers’ scoring might spell bad news for them in the ACC.
Johnson’s absence required Pitt’s starters to put in more of an effort, and the Panthers got just that Tuesday as they won a key ACC road contest, beating the Yellow Jackets 81-74. The win improved Pittsburgh to 16-1 on the season and 4-0 in the conference. The Panthers are tied with their former Big East rival Syracuse for first place in the ACC. Pitt and Syracuse will meet at the Carrier Dome on Saturday afternoon.
The win over Georgia Tech (10-7, 1-3) came in large part to the Pittsburgh starters, who scored all but 11 of the Panthers’ points. Talib Zanna, a 6-foot-9 forward known a bit more for his rebounding than his scoring, helped bridge the gap in Johnson’s absence, scoring 22 points on 8-for-10 shooting from the field. Zanna didn’t abstain from his rebounding responsibilities either as he led Pittsburgh with nine.
The second-half performance of Pittsburgh’s All-ACC candidate Lamar Patterson also showed another way the Panthers can overcome Johnson’s injury. After not scoring at all in a shaky first half that saw the Panthers trail 35-32 at halftime, Patterson showed all his talents in the second half, scoring 11 points and finishing with seven assists, five rebounds and two steals.
Patterson’s passing in the low post keyed the Panthers’ offense in the second half and allowed Pitt to build a double-digit lead. Patterson’s seven assists tied a season-high. Patterson and fellow guards James Robinson and Cameron Wright combined to score 42 points in the win. Trae Golden led Georgia Tech with 22 points.
With Johnson gone for the year and weakening not only Pitt’s offense, but also their player rotation and usage, the Panthers have to get scoring from the starters as much as possible to continue being successful in the ACC. Tuesday’s road win shows that Pittsburgh is still a force at the top of the conference despite Johnson’s injury.