Women’s Basketball: Pitt takes on No. 8 Rutgers

By Greg Trietley

The Pitt women’s basketball team has another crack Tuesday at its first Big East win this… The Pitt women’s basketball team has another crack Tuesday at its first Big East win this season. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they face the stingy defense of the No. 8 Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

The Scarlet Knights tip off against the struggling Panthers at 7 p.m. at the Petersen Events Center in a matchup of teams at opposite ends of the standings.

Pitt (8-8, 0-3 Big East) dropped its first three conference games — losses to Georgetown, Villanova and Syracuse — and enters Tuesday 1-8 in its last nine Big East contests dating back to last season.

Pitt head coach Agnus Berenato said after the 83-60 loss to Syracuse on Saturday that the Panthers haven’t received the scoring they need from their guards in order to win.

“We’ve got to get production [from our guards]. We have to be able to get baskets in,” she said. “If you can’t score, you’re not going to win games.”

Rutgers (13-2, 2-0 Big East) beat Cincinnati, 58-47, Saturday in Piscataway to post its best start to a season since 2007-2008, when the team likewise opened 13-2. The Scarlet Knights dominated for 40 minutes, leading wire-to-wire and holding the Bearcats to 15 points in the first half.

Senior April Sykes had a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds in the victory. Sykes leads the Scarlet Knights with 14.6 points per game.

Junior forward Monique Oliver and senior guard Khadijah Rushdan also produce double-digit points per game for Rutgers. The trio accounts for nearly 60 percent of the Scarlet Knights’ offense this year.

They’re just as talented defensively. Rutgers has kept its last four opponents under 55 points, and in a Dec. 18 game against Iona, the Scarlet Knights held the Gaels to 29.

Opponents have shot 32.5 percent from the floor against Rutgers this year.

That’s an ominous statistic for the Panthers, who have struggled to hit shots from the perimeter regardless of the opponent. Pitt ranks 15th in the conference with a 26.9 3-point shooting percentage.

Sophomore transfer Abby Dowd and freshman Brianna Kiesel, two-thirds of Pitt’s starting backcourt, combined for three baskets against the Orange. Redshirt sophomore Ashlee Anderson, comparatively the elder of the young Panthers group, had 14 points and nine rebounds.

As Pitt continues to struggle to find a rhythm on offense, opposing coaches have commented on the youth and inexperience evident in the team, which feature no upperclassmen on its roster.

“Pitt’s a very young basketball team,” Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman said Saturday. “It’s just one of those things where you have a young team, and they keep playing, keep fighting. You have to give them a lot of credit.”

Pitt committed 23 turnovers Saturday. Berenato said after the loss that protecting the ball and limiting turnovers would be a focus of practice leading up to Tuesday’s game.

“We can’t have that number of turnovers,” she said. “Every time one of our kids wanted to go ahead and penetrate [against Syracuse], I felt we were hesitant, but they just sagged in and had help side, and it was a turnover … That’s something we have to correct.”

The Panthers have the worst assist-to-turnover ratio in the Big East, turning the ball over twice for every assist they register.

The lack of ball security is part of the reason Pitt has given up 67.8 points per game at the other end of the court this year, the highest average of any Big East team.

Anderson said after the Syracuse loss that the Panthers have been too laid back on defense, committing fouls instead of forcing turnovers.

“We just have to have more defensive intensity and have more pressure on them,” she said.

The road won’t become any easier after Tuesday. The game against Rutgers kicks off a string of three consecutive games against ranked Big East programs. The Panthers will travel to Chicago to face No. 21 DePaul Saturday, and then they play at the high-scoring No. 2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish next Tuesday.