At Pitt’s first open practice of the year, first-year point guard Jasmine Whitney controls the Petersen Events Center court with a quiet calmness.
She doesn’t frantically shout out a play — rather, she stands at the top of the key and directs her teammates to open spots on the court. She holds onto the ball when there is no rush to pass. But when she sees an opportunity — such as forward Destinie Gibbs open on the left wing — she pounces.
Whitney moves the ball swiftly to Gibbs, who then receives a pick from sophomore forward Kalista Walters. Walters rolls to the hoop for an easy layup, all set up by Whitney’s play call.
It’s rare for an athlete with no prior experience playing at a college level to be trusted to lead the offense by her teammates and coaches alike. But Pitt women’s basketball head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio didn’t hesitate to bestow that responsibility on Whitney.
“She has to be a leader on the floor. She has to control the tempo, offensively and defensively. It really all starts with the point guard, and she makes us better,” McConnell-Serio said. “When you look at great point guards, they make the players around them better, and I’m seeing her do that. It’s what we’ve loved about her.”
McConnell-Serio noticed Whitney’s poise on the court at Paul VI Catholic High School, where the high schooler helped the team capture the state championship all four years.
Whitney earned the 2016 WCAC and VISAA Player of the Year awards and led the team to a 123-12 record during her four-year career.
Her head coach at Paul VI, Scott Allen, said Whitney preferred to lead by example.
“Jasmine was a very calm-under-pressure player that also wanted to take the big shot and make the big play when we needed it,” Allen said. “But she also deferred to others when she didn’t have to.”
She learned the game from being around her older brother, Travis, after constantly showing up wherever he was practicing basketball. Travis said he watched her grow as a player, tacking on one accolade after another.
“She’s probably the most dedicated point guard there has been coming out of the northern Virginia area,” Travis said. “Everyone lets their ego go to their head, and she’s always been humble. Multiple championships and she’s never stated that — she’s always just worked to get better.”
First year on campus
Whitney, who verbally committed to join the Panthers in March 2015, is one of the team’s two first-year recruits this season along with her roommate, local product Alayna Gribble.
After visiting the campus during her junior year and spending time with the team, Whitney left convinced that Pitt would be the best place to continue her basketball career.
“The team seemed like they were enjoying each other’s company, they seemed like they were a family, the coaches seemed to have their best interests at heart — and I just fell in love with it,” Whitney said.
When Whitney is on the court with the other players, she knows how to keep them focused on the task at hand.
“She has a calming effect, a confidence about her on the floor. I think that’s contagious with the players around her. She doesn’t panic,” McConnell-Serio said. “Shot clock winding down, she likes to have the ball in her hands, knows what she’s going to do … The players around her just have a lot of confidence being on the court with her.”
Maybe McConnell-Serio sees a bit of herself in Whitney.
At 5-foot-5, McConnell-Serio was never the tallest player on the court, but that didn’t stop her from becoming the NCAA’s all-time assists leader during her four-year career at Penn State and making her way into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
McConnell-Serio played point guard at the highest levels of the sport, playing in the WNBA for three seasons and winning a gold and bronze medal at the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games, respectively.
Her competitive spirit was a big reason why.
Without the ability to stay cool and collected on the biggest stages, McConnell-Serio wouldn’t be where she is today –– and she sees the same drive in 5-foot-9 Whitney.
“[Whitney’s] a competitor. She just competes every play — whether she’s on offense or defense, she plays to win,” McConnell-Serio said. “Watching her in high school, she came from a great program, and every time she stepped out on that floor, she expected to win.”
McConnell-Serio knew Whitney would be an essential member of the team when she connected to the way she played. The two point guards share a mutual admiration for one another.
“It’s hard to say no to playing for one of the best point guards in the game, being a point guard,” Whitney said.
“When you look as a coach, you look for an extension of yourself,” McConnell-Serio said.
Joining the club
Whitney is preparing to join already-established junior Aysia Bugg, who started 29 games as a freshman and all 31 games as a sophomore, in Pitt’s point guard rotation.
Last season, Bugg averaged 7.8 points, 2.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game, and her 117 assists were fourth-most in Pitt history for a sophomore. Even while battling with Bugg for playing time, Whitney holds her own on the court, and her attitude blends seamlessly with the team’s pre-existing chemistry.
She’s roommates with fellow freshman guard Gribble, and she’s already bonding with the team’s leading scorer and rebounder from last year, sophomore forward Brenna Wise.
“I think she’s doing a great job of taking control, leading, coming to me for advice, but I’m also coming to her for advice,” Wise said. “She sees the floor from the top of the key, and I see it from the bottom of the floor, so together, we have a great point guard to post game, I would say. She’s just fun to play with.”
Wise points to Whitney’s ability to find open spots on the court and fire up shots off the dribble as a problem for opposing defenses.
“I’d say when she comes off the pick and roll, she takes a nice dribble, she gets to the middle line, and she pulls up for her jump shot. I mean, that’s tough to stop,” Wise said. “As a post, if I can take out her defender, she’s getting that shot nine times out of 10.”
With Wise and Whitney meshing both on and off the court, the Panthers could have a formidable frontcourt-backcourt combination over the next three years.
“I love [having Whitney on the team],” Wise said. “She’s like my little nugget.”
Whitney’s coaches and teammates have high expectations for her in just her first year. But her brother — who has watched her develop her game since she was five years old — isn’t worried about his little sister succumbing to the pressure.
“I think she’ll do as good as her mind lets her do,” Travis said. “Being nervous and scared is always part of the next level, but knowing how she plays when she’s in her comfort zone, I think she’ll do very well. Especially with a team like Pitt.”