Xavier Johnson has been a starter for 79 of the 81 games he’s played for Pittsburgh, but if he has more games like his effort Wednesday night against No. 16 Virginia Tech, he might take a liking to coming off the bench.
Removed from the starting lineup for the first time all season, Johnson scored 32 points to lead the Panthers past the Hokies 83-72.
The 32 points were a career high for Johnson and a Pitt record for points by a reserve in a game.
Johnson found out he wasn’t going to be starting just 10 minutes before the game. Coach Jeff Capel shook up the lineup in an effort to stop a three-game skid that coincided with a personal slump for Johnson, who scored a total of 26 points in the three losses.
“I feel like I haven’t been performing the way I’m supposed to perform lately,” Johnson said. “It just woke me up. It made me more humble.”
After sitting out the first five minutes, Johnson came out hot. He shot 11 of 17 from the floor, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range, as the Panthers (9-5, 5-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) had their way against a usually stingy Virginia Tech defense.
Will he come off the bench again?
“That’s coach’s call, that ain’t my call,” Johnson said. “If I play like that, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”
Keve Aluma scored 30 points on 10-of-16 shooting, including 4 of 6 from long range, for the Hokies (13-4, 7-3), who were coming off a win over then-No. 8 Virginia. Justyn Mutts added 17 points.
Ithiel Horton, who also came off the Pitt bench for the first time this season, scored 15 points.
Virginia Tech led by as many as six points in the second half and trailed by two with 7:30 remaining before Pitt pulled away with a 13-0 run.
Pittsburgh beat a ranked opponent for the first time since January 2019.
Virginia Tech: Second-year Hokies coach Mike Young has built his program with a defense-first mentality, but the Hokies had an uncharacteristically tough time with Johnson and Pitt. Virginia Tech entered No. 41 in points per game allowed, but Pitt shot 50% from the field and 57.7% in the second half.
“They made a couple (3-pointers) and it’s like we went away from our principles,” Young said. “We got spread out a little bit and now, downhill they go with some guys that can really floor it.”
Pitt: Stopping a three-game slide is important for any team, but especially for the Panthers, who have had skids of five games or more in the second halves of four straight seasons.
“It’s not a good feeling,” junior Au’Diese Toney said. “Everybody had their heads down. That’s the feeling we had all freshman year when we were losing. I just don’t want to go back to that.”
Pitt and ACC scoring leader Justin Champagnie was limited by an aggressive Virginia Tech double-team, but still had 13 rebounds and 10 points for his eighth double-double.
Pitt had been scheduled to host No. 20 Florida State on Saturday, but after a positive COVID-19 test in the Seminoles program, will instead visit No. 14 Virginia. The Panthers have not won in three trips to John Paul Jones Arena.
Virginia Tech visits Miami on Saturday. The Hokies are 3-2 in true road games this season and have not lost back-to-back games.