Pitt, Northwestern win openers in Fort Myers Tip-Off tourney
The Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off returned to Suncoast Credit Union Arena at Florida SouthWestern State College Monday night, where Division I programs Pitt, Kansas State, Northwestern and Bradley commenced the battle to see who will “Own The Fort.”
Night one saw a back and forth battle between Pitt (5-2) and K-State (4-1), with the Panthers giving the Wildcats their first loss of the young season, coming out on top by a narrow 63-59 margin.
Northwestern (3-2) took care of Bradley (4-2), 78-51, in a start-to-finish complete effort from the Wildcats, including a career-high 23 points from Pat Spencer, who shot 9-of-12 from the floor, adding two rebounds and eight assists in 23 minutes.
Pitt and Northwestern will face off tonight for the rights to this year’s championship, while K-State and Bradley play for third place.
More than 2,000 fans packed Suncoast Credit Union Arena to watch Division I programs square off and the night’s first game certainly delivered.
This was only the second game between Pitt and K-State in their history, with Pitt getting the better of its opponent in 2014.
K-State came into the tournament as the only team without a loss, and it showed in the first half.
Freshmen Antonio Gordon and DaJuan Gordon led the first half charge for K-State, with Antonio dropping in seven points and DaJuan leading all scorers at the break with 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting.
Junior point guard Ryan Murphy kept Pitt close on the offensive side of the ball with nine first-half points. Eric Hamilton was big on the boards for the Panthers with nine first-half rebounds.
The Panthers only found themselves down 30-28 at the break, and the second half would be another 20 minutes of back-and-forth basketball.
Pitt’s sophomore guard Xavier Johnson, who earned ACC All-Freshman Team honors last season, took over in the second half, playing with tempo, poise and a hard-nosed style that propelled his team into the win column against a solid opponent.
Johnson, with just over 10 seconds left in the game, drove into the lane and finished a contested layup to give the Panthers a one-point lead. K-State’s Cartier Diarra then took the ball down the length of the court and went to answer with a drive and score of his own, but was called for an offensive foul. The Wildcats would foul and the Panthers would make their free throws to seal the victory.
“First of all, I’m very proud of our guys,” said Pitt Head Coach Jeff Capel post game. “We showed a toughness and a grit. The game wasn’t pretty, but it was a hard-fought game. I thought both teams really, really competed. I thought defensively we did a good job. I thought on the boards we did a good job. And I thought we showed toughness and togetherness and resiliency. We didn’t get off to a good start as far as valuing the basketball, but we were able to get ourselves back in the game with Xavier (Johnson) out in the first half (foul trouble). I thought everyone who stepped on that court really fought and did a good job. And then in the second half, we got into a little bit of a rhythm.”
Johnson, who scored 12 second half points on 5-of-7 from the floor, and added six rebounds, said he wanted to put his team in a place to win.
When asked what was going through his mind with seconds remaining in the game and the ball in his hands, Johnson said, “Just making the right play. Just finding a way to win.”
Johnson and Hamilton — who led all scorers with 13 points (12 rebounds, 30 minutes), said they’ve seen this Pitt team grow from the first week of the season until now.
“We’re starting to play together more and just starting to play for each other more,” Hamilton said. “We realized if we play together, everyone is going to accomplish what they want to accomplish, which is to win.”
“I actually think the thing that has changed with this team is that we genuinely love each other,” he said. “Before coach told us we’re just a group of individuals, but now I think we qualify as a team.”
K-State coach Bruce Weber was proud of his team’s willingness to battle, but was disappointed in its abysmal percentage from the free throw line.
“Obviously disappointing,” Weber said. “You battle your butts off, give yourself a chance. Guys showed some toughness and character. Get down six and come back, but we had our chances. He (Johnson) makes a tough shot down the stretch, we miss our free throws – big difference. They were 18-for-21, we were 3-for-13. You know, it was a back-and-forth, hard-fought game. We had our chances. They made the one play at the end and what else can you say? You know, it’s just disappointing.”
Diarra wasn’t pleased with the charge call with seconds remaining.
“I believe it wasn’t a charge,” he said. “Simple play. I mean, you know, I don’t like to speak on refereeing, but it is what it is. We didn’t come out with a win like we wanted to.”
Game two of the evening wasn’t nearly as competitive on the scoreboard as the first, but was a coming out party of sorts for Spencer, the nation’s top collegiate lacrosse player of 2019, now shooting guard for Northwestern.
Spencer transferred to Northwestern from Loyola University Maryland to pursue a graduate degree — he completed his undergrad in four years and did not redshirt, retaining the ability to play one year in a different sport.
The Braves did start the game on a 6-0 run, but was all downhill from there. An ensuing 9-0 run from NU started its offensive engines and the Wildcats never looked back.
Northwestern took a 39-21 advantage heading into the half thanks to 12 points from Spencer and 11 from freshman Miller Kopp, who was a perfect 3-of-3 from deep and 4-for-4 from the floor in the first 20 minutes.
It was more of the same for NU in the second, and more buckets for Spencer.
The guard was a perfect 4-of-4 from the field in last 20 minutes, including 3-for-3 from deep and tacked on five assists. Spencer finished with 23 points, two rebounds and eight assists in 28 minutes.
Junior Elijah Childs led the way for Bradley with 14 points (6-of-12), seven rebounds and two assists.
“We’re really excited about the win tonight,” said NU Head Coach Chris Collins. “We’ve had our ups and downs as everybody’s seen. We’re definitely a work in progress, and I thought tonight we really put a lot of things together, which was exciting to see as a coach. I was really happy with the way our guys locked into the game plan for this game.”
Collins praised his team’s work on the defensive end of the floor and for believing in their talent.
“You know, I thought there was really a defensive attitude, and everybody knows our struggles coming into the game from a shooting perspective, and I’m just a big believer that if you throw yourself into fighting and playing defense and rebounding and doing other things, then the ball starts going in and I think that’s what happened tonight,” he said. “Our guys were so locked in to just competing and playing to win that we shot the ball with confidence and rhythm, and we saw it go in which is obviously great. You know, we have such great respect for Bradley -an NCAA Tournament team from last year. A lot of veteran players, extremely well-coached, so we knew we going to have to play well in order to win tonight.”
Spencer pointed to the coaching staff when asked about his game and how he felt — not just shooting the ball, but controlling the pace of the game and being a floor general for the Wildcats.
“Yeah, I think the coaches gave us a lot of confidence this week,” Spencer said. “You know, like you said, we’ve been in a little bit of a slump shooting the ball. And anytime you have that, you start to make decisions out of your character. You got to shoot the open ones. So, he gave us that confidence this week. Started knocking down the open ones and some other things opened up on the floor. They got to press up on the ball screens, and you know, we knocked down a couple open jumpers and the floor started to open up. A lot of it was confidence for us tonight and a lot of it opened up. We just had a good flow tonight.”
Bradley Head Coach Brian Wardle was discouraged with his team’s lack of execution and effort.
“It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. It’s a 40-minute game,” Wardle said. “We came out 6-0, guys were confident, then we just got away from doing the little things. Not details, no execution of the game plan at all. Effort was very poor at times by certain players. Very, very disappointed to see. But give Northwestern credit. We worried about them finding their shot and making shots – they’ve struggled all year to make shots – and they shot the ball really well.
“Spencer was a handful. Their backcourt dominated our backcourt and really played well. So, I really give them a lot of credit. But then, you can control your attitude and effort and we just didn’t have it today very well, at all as a group today, collectively.”
Pitt will take on Northwestern in today’s championship game. This match-up will reunite Capel and Collins, who were Duke teammates and assistants under Mike Krzyzewski.
This will be the first time the two will face off as head coaches for their respective programs.
Collins and Capel were teammates at Duke from 1993-96. They comprised the starting backcourt for the Blue Devils in the ’94 season, where they made it to the national championship game.
This will be the 19th meeting all-time between Pitt and Northwestern, with the Wildcats holding a 10-8 series advantage. Pitt did win the two teams last match-up — a 60-42 win in December of ’96.
K-State will take on Bradley at 6 p.m., with the title game tipping off around 8:30. Both games are on FS1.
For more information and tickets, visit www.FortMyersTipOff.com
-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj