Diop finds success on the court at Pitt thousands of miles from home


By Jessica Boddy / Staff Writer

It was 4:15 on a Wednesday afternoon in the Petersen Events Center, and the Pitt women’s basketball team was just finishing up a vigorous practice session. The final drill was underway, during which trios of players rotated around a hoop and took turns making free throw shots. One player, Yacine Diop, offered verbal encouragement to teammates while also making consecutive free throws.

After a sharp whistle blast and a collective team huddle, the player bounded over to the media representatives on the sideline, extended a hand, and declared, “Hello! I’m Yacine!”

Yacine Diop, a freshman forward with a notably sunny disposition, started in all 30 games and averaged 9.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game for Pitt this past season, putting her at third and second best on the team, respectively, in each.

Basketball was Diop’s first love, she said, which she discovered at nine years old on the streets in her hometown of Dakar, Senegal.

 “I first started playing on the street, like street basketball,” said Diop, who added that she went to play for a club two years ago.

In 2011, Diop, then 16, came to the United States alone and attended Oak Hill Academy in Virginia to further pursue her basketball and academic careers. The adjustment to American culture was a challenge, but relationships with teachers, coaches and basketball teammates smoothed the transition.

“It was very different. Coming to the states, I didn’t know English at all,” Diop said. “I had a personal English teacher and a class to help my speaking and pronunciation and writing. That really helped a lot.”

Diop faced roadblocks during the journey to her starting position at Pitt. After her sophomore year of high school, Oak Hill Academy cut the girls’ basketball program.

 Mike Rodgers, the former girls’ basketball coach and current director of admissions at Oak Hill, said when he was promoted to his current position, the administration could not find a replacement coach and decided to close the program. Rodgers said one reason he took the admissions job was because of the strenuous travel requirements that came with the team’s schedule.

Diop transferred to Seton-La Salle High School in Pittsburgh in order to keep playing. She knew Seton-La Salle assistant coach Ron Mumbray through playing summer AAU ball in the Pittsburgh area, and Seton-La Salle typically has an excellent basketball program.

After evaluation, the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) and the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) ruled Diop ineligible to play for her junior season at Seton-La Salle because her reason for transferring was athletic – something that’s not allowed by these organizations’ rulebooks, in order to prevent schools attempting to stack a roster full of skilled athletes through transfers.

Despite the year without competitive play, colleges around the country — UC Berkeley, Dayton and Wake Forest — heavily recruited her. Pitt head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio secured Diop, though, and reminisced about the first time she saw the forward play.

“As soon as you watch her play, you just see her athleticism and the way she can run and jump and elevate on the jumper. The first time I saw her play I just absolutely fell in love with her,” McConnell-Serio said. “As a sophomore, when you see that in a younger player — you see unlimited potential with her.”

McConnell-Serio said Diop’s calming and infectious personality has had positive effects on and off the court.

“I’m the one who gets animated and tense on the sidelines, and she’s a calming factor. She’ll look at me and give me the hand signals like, ‘Coach, it’s OK. We’re OK. I got you’,” McConnell-Serio said. “She has a personality that is just infectious around this team. [She] always has a smile on her face.”

Diop’s teammate and roommate, Aysia Bugg, reiterated her coaches’ statements about Diop’s affability.

“She’s so easy to relate to on a personal level and to talk to, even though she’s not originally from here,” Bugg, a freshman guard, said. “You can talk to her about anything. She’s a great friend.”

As for academics, Diop, who is now fluent in English, French and Wolof, plans to study international business or become an interpreter one day. She recently made the 2014-2015 All-ACC academic team, along with teammates Brianna Kiesel and Monica Wignot.

To be eligible for those honors, a player must earn a 3.0 GPA in the previous semester as well as maintain a cumulative 3.0 GPA during their academic career.

Over the next three years on the court, Diop said she wants to keep improving her 3-point shot and overall shooting percentage. McConnell-Serio wants to help her achieve those goals, and sees Diop as a developing force for the Panthers.

“I just see her continuing to grow her game and being able to be a 3-point threat for us,” McConnell-Serio said. “One thing she has is versatility, being able to play inside and out. And I just see her getting better and better in both areas.”

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