As the final moments wound down in a first-round matchup of the ACC tournament, Pitt’s first-year guard Dayshanette Harris received the rock with the score even at 65. As two Notre Dame defenders surrounded her, Harris forced her way to the baseline, hitting a floater with three seconds remaining.
The exciting finish not only gave Pitt an ACC win during a season filled with losses, it underlined the team’s lasting motivation — leaning on the future of the program.
With first-years making up four of the five starting spots by the end of the year, head coach Lance White maintained confidence that his young squad could build a strong program. A highly touted 2020 recruiting class, along with two pivotal transfers, could see the Panthers climb the ACC ranks fast.
“That’s what excites me,” White said. “We’ll still be young, we’ll have nine freshman and sophomores on our roster, but those freshman are more like juniors and seniors because of what they had to play as freshman.”
Forward Tracey Hueston, a four-star, top-100 recruit by ESPN, chose Pitt over conference foe Virginia Tech and backyard rival West Virginia. Hueston said she connected with the coaching staff right away, after they attended one of her tournaments in 11th grade.
“From day one, I could tell that they were all about supporting me,” Hueston said. “The biggest thing was feeling that I was a part of the family from the jump.”
Hueston brings height, length and athleticism that the Panthers need now. The 6-foot-2 post player cleans the glass with ease, while also exhibiting quick speed in transition and an impressive shooting ability.
Hueston and three-star signee forward Liatu King both hail from the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area. Pitt will continue to go after recruits in the region, which currently boasts eight top-100 recruits in the 2021 class.
“[Hueston] was one of those kids, when I first got the job here, she was a huge target for us,” White said. “The DMV area was going to be a huge hotbed for women’s basketball, and with its location to Pitt, we knew that was going to be an area we really wanted to jump on.”
Rounding out the 2020 class, three-star guard Taisha Exanor has a quick first step, finds open teammates and plays aggressive defense. Exanor and Harris playing in the backcourt could make for an exciting duo.
White and his staff have looked around the world for potential talent. Exanor, from Montreal, is the fifth player on the 2020-21 roster from outside of the United States. This year’s team will include guard Emy Hayford from the Netherlands, center Marcella Lamark from Brazil, as well as forward Cynthia Ezeja and guard Ismini Prapa from Greece.
“We really haven’t struggled too much with language barriers,” White said. “But I think all of those kids bring such a different worldliness at all levels, that’s what I love about the game. You bring all these people from all these different spots, and now you learn that we’re a lot more similar than we are different.”
Everett, who spent a season and a half at UNM, earned the Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year award after averaging 13.5 points, 3.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game in her first year campaign. Since she transferred during the season, Everett can join the Panther’s after the first semester of 2020-21 season, and will have two more years of eligibility after.
“Coach White came for a home visit and I did enjoy his presence and I got a good feeling from the rest of the girls,” Everett said. “I felt like I trusted him and trusted the way his plan was.”
After seeing limited playing time in her first collegiate season, the 5-foot-9 Strother will have to sit out her first season at Pitt. She’ll have three years of eligibility remaining.
Although the team is excited for its recipients, Pitt also lost a key player this offseason in the transfer portal. Former Pitt guard Kyla Nelson, who fought severe health issues last year, announced a sudden departure from the program in April. She ultimately chose to finish her career at Florida International University.
“With what she had went through, everything this year, I think it was hard for her,” White said. “We wish her the best and we’re really excited about watching her down at FIU.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing restrictions have prevented the Panthers from practicing together this summer. But the team has attempted to stay on a schedule — players have done strength workouts from home, as well as hold team Zoom calls to maintain their chemistry.
Despite the optimism the program holds for its next season, the college sports landscape is still blurry at this point. The next few months will determine how the season, if it occurs, will be carried out. But White is optimistic that if a season is played, his youth movement will be ready.
“There’s hope. As things begin to open up, we don’t know what will actually happen and what kind of season we’ll have,” White said. “Whatever they can give us, we’re gonna take it and make the best of it.”