Preview: Pitt women’s basketball hoping for end-of-season run at ACC Tournament

Pitt+women%E2%80%99s+basketball+qualified+as+the+No.+15+seed+of+15+teams+in+the+ACC+Tournament.+The+Panthers+play+their+first+tournament+game+on+Wednesday.

Courtesy of Matthew Hawley | Pitt Athletics

Pitt women’s basketball qualified as the No. 15 seed of 15 teams in the ACC Tournament. The Panthers play their first tournament game on Wednesday.

By Alexander Ganias, Staff Writer

Pitt women’s basketball (5-13, 3-12 ACC) did not have much of a successful season by any means, finishing 12th in the ACC standings. While the campaign featured several high points, the Panthers lost more close games than they won, allowing fouls and free throws to get the better of them. Fortunately for the Panthers, the ACC Basketball Tournament doesn’t care if a team is the best in the country or worse than a DII program — every ACC squad gets a berth and a chance to win the conference.

Last year’s tournament finished just before the COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the world. The No. 2 seed NC State Wolfpack won that championship game over the four-seed Florida State Seminoles.

The Panthers qualified as the No. 15 seed of 15 teams, but they showed some fight by narrowly defeating No. 10 seed Notre Dame, 67-65. The game belonged to then-first-year guard Dayshanette Harris, who scored 20 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and hit the game-winning shot with less than three seconds left. But Pitt’s luck ran out in the next round against No. 7 seed Georgia Tech, where the Yellow Jackets eliminated the Panthers on March 5, despite another 20-point night from Harris.

The ongoing pandemic will affect this year’s tournament, however. Both Duke and Virginia ended their seasons early because of health concerns, forfeiting their spots in the tournament. As a result, the ACC has implemented a 13-team bracket, where the No. 12 and No. 13 seeds will play to see who will face the No. 5 seed. The Panthers qualified for that No. 12 seed, which means they will have to win five straight games to take the entire tournament.

The first game of the tournament sees Pitt go up against the Boston College Eagles (6-11, 2-11 ACC) this Wednesday, the only conference squad to perform worse than the Panthers in the regular season.

The Panthers and Eagles only met each other once this season, but the bigger story between the teams came when they couldn’t play. BC and Pitt were five minutes away from tipoff on New Year’s Eve when both programs were told the game would not happen due to a positive COVID test on the Panthers’ side.

After over a month of no basketball, the Panthers were scheduled to play the Eagles on Jan. 24 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, but that game also got postponed. This time, Boston College contracted positive cases. The teams finally met at the Conte Forum on Feb. 16, and Pitt won their final game of the regular season, defeating BC 83-80. A win on Wednesday will set Pitt up with a date against the No. 5 seed Syracuse Orange.

The Orange were ranked as high as No. 18 in the AP and No. 16 in the Coaches Poll this season. They won both games against the Panthers, with the Syracuse bench dominating Pitt’s in the first game in an 80-57 Orange victory. But the second game was a bit closer — Pitt had a lead going into the second half, but untimely fouls and several giveaways turned the game in Syracuse’s favor, eventually leading to a 71-67 Panther defeat.

Pitt will have a tough time beating the cream of the conference’s crop in Louisville, NC State and Georgia Tech, but it will face a tougher path to get to them. In their entire season, the Panthers have only won back-to-back games once, their first two games of the season against George Mason and Hofstra.

After the BC victory, the Panthers struggled during their final four games, scoring only 54.8 points per game while giving up 72.3. Pitt shot a paltry 47.7% from the free throw line, and committed an average of 15.8 fouls per game in that span. Fouls and free throws have been cause for concern throughout the season, digging Pitt into holes it could not climb out of.

To make things worse, Harris and senior guard Gabbie Green have missed the last three and two games respectively. First-year forward Tracey Hueston said after the Notre Dame loss that losing those key pieces put extra emphasis on the bench players.

“It’s obviously very hard losing two huge hustle players for us,” Hueston said. “Some freshmen have to match that hustle and give us that defensive bounce.”

But the Panthers do have junior guard Jayla Everett and her team-leading 15.1 points per game. They also have sophomore forward Rita Igbokwe and first-year forward Cynthia Ezeja, whose combined 12.2 rebounds a night helped Pitt collect 41.4 boards per game as a team. 

The Panthers need to capitalize on their rebounding, limit the fouls and cash in at the free throw line to have a shot at the tournament crown. But even if everything goes as planned, they would likely still need quite a bit of luck to make that dream a reality.

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