Kiesel, team excited for first tournament game Saturday


By Chris Puzia / Sports Editor

Even Brianna Kiesel, Pitt women’s basketball’s senior leader and most battle-tested player, will have no experience from which to draw on Saturday in the first round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament.

The point guard, who never played on an NCAA Tournament team before her final year, has led the team to come-from-behind victories in recent games. But she said the team cannot afford similar slow starts, such as when it trailed Clemson by 15 in its final regular season game.

“I’m sure there are going to be nerves,” Kiesel said. “But you have to try to put those in the back of your mind, go out there and give it your all.”

That early start will come against the Chattanooga Mocs in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn. Pitt, a No. 10 seed, will face a Mocs team that went undefeated in the Southern Conference en route to a No. 7 seed in the tournament.

“We have to get a good warmup,” Kiesel said. “When we hit shots early, the game goes a whole lot smoother. We have to definitely get transition points.”

Saturday will mark Pitt’s first NCAA Tournament game since 2009, when it lost to No. 1 Oklahoma, 70-59, after advancing to the Sweet 16. In her second year as head coach, Suzie McConnell-Serio brought the Panthers (19-11, 9-7 ACC) to the tournament for the fourth time in program history.

Still, she said the team will not prepare any differently for Chattanooga (29-3, 14-0 Southern) just because it now comes as part of a single-elimination tournament.

“We’re doing the same routine that we’ve done for every other game we’ve played all season long,” McConnell-Serio said. “We watch film, we watch personnel, we watch sets offensively, we’ll watch their defense.”

Before Monday night’s selection show announced the Panthers’ opponent, the team had focused its practices on conditioning and scrimmaging each other, rather than the to-be-named opponent.

“It’s exciting, now, to have an opponent [to prepare for],” she said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge and opportunity, and just enjoying the experience.”

Preparing to face a new team, McConnell-Serio said, helps her squad forget about its last game. On March 5, Pitt lost in its first ACC Tournament game 51-45 to a Virginia Tech team that won only one conference game during the regular season.

“We have to hit shots, and we didn’t do that in our last game,” McConnell-Serio said. “That’s been an emphasis in the practices leading up to this game.”

Kiesel, who scored nine points on 4-of-15 shooting against Virginia Tech, said Chattanooga may use an approach similar to that of the Hokies by doubling the pressure on her when she has the ball.

“[Virginia Tech] took me completely out of my game,” Kiesel said. “The team goes as I go, and I wasn’t going. I was slowing down.”

Against Chattanooga, she said she expects similar pressure, but said she’ll “score when I can and pick it up on defense.”

A key part of Pitt’s preparation for Saturday’s game will be Chattanooga’s sophomore forward Jasmine Joyner who leads the team with 12 points per game. Sophomore guard Chelsey Shumpert follows closely behind with 11.9 points per game.

One weakness McConnell-Serio will likely try to exploit comes on the boards. Despite its strong defense, Chattanooga averages 33.3 rebounds per game, and on the season the Mocs have had a negative-rebound differential.

Pitt, on the other hand, averages 40.6 rebounds per game.

Chattanooga’s biggest strength comes in its defense. The team allows only 50.4 points per game, and it accomplishes that by slowing down the pace of games and limiting possessions.

“We’re high-tempo,” Kiesel said. “We like to push the ball and get into transition, so although they want to slow the game down, we still have to play our own game.”

But Kiesel won’t be the only Panther in that effort. Several freshmen, including forward Stasha Carey, have rounded out Pitt’s lineup so that it does not have to rely entirely on Kiesel.

Carey said that to support the senior, the team will have to score.

“If we can start to score more, the team will have to sag off of [Kiesel],” she added.

While Carey will also appear in her first career NCAA Tournament game, she said she’s not worried about nerves overcoming her.

“I would have more excitement than nerves,” she said. “I’m kind of used to being put on a bigger stage, so I’ll shake off the nerves before I get there.”

Kiesel said that contributions to Pitt’s success from freshmen such as Carey, guard Aysia Bugg and forward Yacine Diop have been almost a year in the making. She said she knew last summer during workouts that “they were going to be impact players.”

“They had to be,” Kiesel added. “We were low in numbers, so they had to come in and fill big shoes … I think they blew everyone away.”

Carey and the other freshmen will have to continue that productive trend on Saturday. The winner advances to face either No. 2 seed Tennessee or No. 15 seed Boise State.

Tip-off is scheduled for 11 a.m.