Kiesel, McConnell-Serio help lead turnaround effort


In less than two calendar years, Suzie McConnell-Serio rerouted Pitt’s women’s basketball program from a downward spiral of losses to the start of a victorious upward climb.

I did not see that coming.

In November, when I made my prediction about the team’s upcoming season, I was the most optimistic of my peers, predicting a 13-16 record. I thought 13 wins was going to be a stretch, citing a lack of depth and overwhelming team-wide inexperience as the two main factors holding the Panthers back. I expected them to finish well below a .500 winning percentage, not even sniffing a potential bid to the NCAA Tournament.

I underestimated McConnell-Serio.

In the two seasons prior to her Pitt arrival from Duquesne, losing was all the women’s basketball team had known. Mired in a streak of losing seasons and a stretch of 38 straight regular season conference losses, McConnell-Serio helped the team take small steps toward improvement during her first season as coach.

Small steps are fine, especially when just trying to win a few conference games, but the team and McConnell-Serio wanted to make noise in the conference, and they managed to make themselves heard.

On the backs of senior point guard Brianna Kiesel and a bevy of contributing freshmen, the Panthers bypassed another season of small steps and made a leap.

The leap, displayed by their ACC record, was all you could have asked for this season.

It included a winning record, both overall and in conference play (19-11, 9-7 ACC). It included an incredible, accolade-filled year from Brianna Kiesel, an exemplary woman on and off the court —  she earned conference all-academic team honors three times and posted a perfect 4.0 GPA last semester. The season even included awesome narratives, like the play and shot-blocking ability of former Pitt volleyball standout Monica Wignot.

But, most importantly, it included a glimpse into the future that appears to have an upward trajectory.

That future is largely in the hands of three freshmen: Stasha Carey, Aysia Bugg and Yacine Diop.

The trio, currently lacking a nickname (think of something along the line of the 2008 Boston Celtics’ “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen), were thrown into the fire right from the first tip this season and forced to contribute in a conference that featured five top-25 teams at season’s end.

Kiesel was undeniably the Panthers’ best player, and her First-Team All-ACC honors show that the country has noticed.

But without the play of the freshmen, the team wouldn’t have earned a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

I’ll start with Carey. The big-bodied forward was arguably the most important player on the court, besides Kiesel. She provided a post presence for a young team that needed to get easy baskets when its shots weren’t falling, which was the case more often than was desired.

Her defensive efforts, especially on the glass, were more than anyone could have asked of an incoming freshman, and her quick hands turned over plenty of steals, including one off a Virginia inbound that helped vault the Panthers to another win.

While Carey’s name found its way into the headlines, it overshadowed the contributions of Bugg, especially if you only look at postgame statistics. Bugg, who might have the reins to herself next year with Kiesel’s departure, provided big minutes for the team and showed the ability to handle the ball when she was on the court.

Nothing about her game necessarily stands out as extraordinary, but she will be an integral part of the team in the coming years.

Last, there is Diop, who might literally jump off this page. The Senegal native’s athleticism went unparalleled this season. Even with Kiesel playing, at any given time Diop was the most athletic Panther on the court. Her ability to create her own shot, as well as defend the oppositions from anywhere on the court, was an integral cog in the team’s plan this season.

If,  and when,  she matures and learns to dial down her sometimes-erratic play, Diop could blossom into a star — one that can take this team to great heights.

After dropping their first ACC tournament game to Virginia Tech, a team the Panthers already conquered earlier in the season,  the team still played its way into the NCAA Tournament — unlike its male counterparts.

For that reason alone, we can mark this season as a win.