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PITTSBURGH (AP) — As one of two new Division I programs in 2018-19, not many had high expectations for North Alabama this year.
But these Lions can put up a fight. Facing a major-conference opponent for the first time in program history, North Alabama was up to the task, forcing a tight contest with Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon.
The talent level of the Panthers won out in the end, with Pitt (5-0) pulling ahead late for a 71-66 victory. But the Lions (1-3) certainly made an impression.
“I’m really proud of our team for finding a way to win when we weren’t at our best, and we weren’t at our best because of North Alabama,” Pitt coach Jeff Capel said.
North Alabama led by four at the half and played a frustrating, scrappy defense that held the Panthers to a season-low 39 percent shooting.
“I thought they played really, really hard and they pressured us,” Capel said. “We had to work harder offensively to get into stuff. That’s the first time we’ve faced pressure like that, I thought that threw us off we weren’t as connected.”
Freshman point guard Xavier Johnson was the difference-maker for the Panthers. He led all scorers with a career-high 23 points, including several driving layups as the teams traded baskets down the stretch and a pair of free throws that iced the victory in the final seconds.
Kendarius Smith (19 points) and Jamari Blackmon (13 points) paced a more-balanced Lions attack. North Alabama had nine different players find the net and led in bench points, 22-9.
Pitt’s fortunes in the paint improved when forward Emanuel Littles fouled out with just over five minutes remaining. He had a game-high 10 rebounds.
North Alabama: The Lions also played a tight contest at Saint Louis, and don’t seem intimidated by an unfriendly atmosphere. Their level of competitiveness bodes well for their chances in the Atlantic Sun, where they were picked last in the conference’s preseason poll.
“To hold them at 39 percent from the field and 17 percent from the 3-point line, that’s a plus for us,” Lions coach Tony Pujol said. “To be pound-for-pound on the boards with a team like this is a plus for us.”
Pitt: The Panthers had their worst shooting game of the season and didn’t get their usual level of contribution from senior wing Jared Wilson-Frame. The team’s leading scorer, he came in averaging 21.3 points and five made 3-pointers per game, but was held to nine points and 1 for 6 from outside the arc.
With Pitt’s first four games ending in solid victories, it was the first time Johnson has been asked to lead the offense in a tight contest down the stretch.
“‘X’ is obviously a great player,” said Pitt captain Malik Ellison. “The ball is going to be in his hands. He makes great decisions with it.”
The game was the third in five days and second in under 48 hours for the Panthers, and their inability to finish at the rim might have been influenced by some tired legs.
“This was the end of an energy cycle for us,” Capel said. “When you add those elements against a team that’s hungry, we were in the position that we were in.”
North Alabama: Hosts NAIA Martin Methodist on Tuesday.
Pitt: Will leave home for the first time this season when they face Saint Louis in New York on Wednesday.
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