Carolyn Pallof | Staff Photographer
Being a student athlete at the Division I level is a tall order for anyone. Add in a myriad of injuries and a life-threatening illness, and it becomes an almost impossible challenge — but not for redshirt senior guard Aysia Bugg.
Bugg is in her sixth year at Pitt and hasn’t played a full season since 2017. She missed the entirety of the 2017-18 season with a torn ACL she suffered before the season began. Then, five games into the 2018-19 season, she was diagnosed with blood clots in her lungs, forcing her to take another medical redshirt year.
Through all the health adversity and upheaval to her playing environment, basketball has always remained a constant in Bugg’s life. Sports, in general, have buoyed Bugg since it became apparent in her youth that she had an athletic advantage over her peers.
“[My parents] had us involved in anything from T-ball to soccer, indoor and outdoor sports until we found out what we really enjoyed, and then basketball was a clear difference in my ability so I just went with that,” Bugg said.
Bugg described herself as a “late bloomer” and said she didn’t find out about AAU basketball until her first year of high school. After she played more AAU ball, college programs began to take notice. That’s when Bugg received her first letter of interest, giving her the idea that she could continue her career on the hardwood beyond high school.
When she transferred to Bolingbrook High School, about an hour outside Chicago, entering her junior year, she started playing in more high-profile tournaments. It wasn’t long after that Pitt sent her a letter of interest, followed by a scholarship offer.
Bugg came to Pitt for two reasons — she had an interest in studying health care and noticed the women’s basketball program’s resurgence under head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio during the program’s second year in the arduous ACC.
She entered her first year at Pitt in the shadow of a roster stacked with great talent and was joined by a pair of ESPN 100 recruits — forwards Yacine Diop and Stasha Carey.
The trio appeared in every game that season, starting in almost all of them. They led Pitt to a 20-win season and an NCAA Tournament berth where Pitt won its first-round matchup against Chattanooga before losing to Tennessee in the Round of 32.
The following seasons were harder for Bugg and the Panthers, with key players transferring after her first season and in the seasons that followed. Carey left after the 2015-16 season and Diop the season after. The result was a dip in performance on the court, as the Panthers finished the next three seasons with a record below .500.
And the hardships didn’t end there. Bugg suffered a torn ACL before her senior year in 2017, requiring her to sit out the upcoming season. She was granted a medical redshirt that allowed her to play the next season, but the Panthers struggled badly without her, winning just two of 16 ACC games and finishing with a 10-20 overall record.
McConnell-Serio was fired following that season and replaced by former Florida State assistant coach Lance White. It was a lot of change to go through over the course of one collegiate career, but Bugg said White made her and the other players quickly feel at ease with the decision.
“I thought he was great,” Bugg said. “I’ve never had anyone like him. He’s just so upbeat and positive and knows when it’s time to have fun and time not to, but also really cares about us, loves us and he’s just genuine in everything he does.”
Entering her first season under White, Bugg said she was ecstatic to be back on the court and play in the up-tempo style that White implemented. After a long rehab that “took entirely way too long,” Bugg lived up to her superstar billing through the first five games of the 2018-19 season, leading the team with 14 points per game.
But following the season’s fifth game — a blowout loss at Georgetown — she began to feel pain in her shoulder that escalated into difficulty breathing. Once tests were completed, it was discovered that she had blood clots in both of her lungs.
With the diagnosis, Bugg again had to sit out the remainder of the season and was put on blood thinners for six months to prevent further blood clots. It was her second straight season spent on the bench and the Panthers again struggled. They won only two games in conference play and finished with an overall record of 11-20.
In her two years sitting on the sidelines, watching her teammates get to play the sport she loves, Bugg said she learned to see the game from a new perspective despite the disappointment she felt.
“I just feel as though it gave me a different perspective on the game, being able to understand things more,” Bugg said. “You can learn about basketball for the rest of your life … I just feel like I’m continuing to grow and that process will never stop, but me being able to see it from the sideline … allows me to help my teammates more and be the coach on the court.”
Bugg had to wait until May, when her blood thinner regimen had been completed, to start working out again. Due to the damage blood clots do to the lungs, Bugg’s physician cautioned her not to exert too much energy early on after being cleared. That meant yet another two months of reduced workouts before she could get back into true basketball shape.
After finally participating in the full team workouts, Bugg got back into her current playing shape. And through those workouts, she said she has been able to bond better with her teammates, describing them as the “most open, excited group of energetic girls.”
Among the Panthers’ underclassmen is first-year guard, and likely heir to Bugg’s point guard spot, Dayshanette Harris. Harris said going on visits and meeting people can be nerve-racking as a recruit, but when she met Bugg those feelings dissipated.
“It’s been great,” Harris said. “There’s no better person that could lead me as a point guard and us as a team. She’s in her sixth year, she has the experience down and I don’t think I would want anyone else to lead me.”
Off the court, Bugg already finished her undergraduate degree in health sciences last year and is in the second year of her master’s program. She spends her spare time with her one-year-old Yorkie, Charlie, watching basketball film and movies.
Between her master’s program and a potential career in professional basketball, Bugg has plenty of options for life after Pitt. For now, though, her job is to lead the team in her final season — a role that White said she’s excelled in so far, averaging 20 points per game.
“She’s a sixth year and we have five freshmen,” White said. “I told her this isn’t for the faint of heart. You’re going to have to dive in with that group of kids and build their trust and be a big part of their evolution as basketball players. She said, ‘Whatever you need, coach I’m willing to do,’ and she’s done that.”