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Pitt hosts Virginia to continue NCAA tournament push

By Jeremy Tepper / Staff Writer

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In a conference as tough as the ACC, some talented teams are bound to fall to the strength of the league. Virginia appears to fit that prognosis, as, despite its talent, it sits at 15-10 and on the outside looking in for the NCAA Tournament.

Today, Virginia (15-10, 5-7 ACC) will host the Pitt (17-8, 7-5 ACC) women’s basketball team with hopes of ending the Cavaliers’ three-game losing streak.

“So much in this league is who you play and when you play them, and they just played three top-25 teams in a row. So they’re probably excited to get a little breather and play Pitt,” head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio said.

In its last three games, Virginia has played Notre Dame, Duke and Florida State, who are ranked No. 4, No. 10 and No. 9, respectively. McConnell-Serio points to this tough schedule as reasoning for the Cavaliers’ record, though senior guard Brianna Kiesel pointed to their youth as well. Eight of the 12 players on Virginia’s roster are freshmen or sophomores.

The Cavaliers’ last game against Florida State was their closest defeat of the three, which they lost 65-56. They also happened to be without their leading scorer, junior guard Faith Randolph, who sat out with plantar fasciitis. Randolph’s status is up in the air for today’s game, but McConnell-Serio has had her team practice as if Randolph will play.

“We’ll plan for her and we’ll prepare for the other players just as we do for every other scout,” McConnell-Serio said.

The decision to do so isn’t necessarily made based on medical opinion, but rather out of habit. In Pitt’s case, McConnell-Serio places a heavy focus on scouting an opponent’s sets, of which Randolph just happens to be a primary part.

“For me, I’m more dissecting how we want to defend what they’re running,” McConnell-Serio said.

Besides scouting plays and sets, Pitt’s coach also focuses on learning a player’s tendencies both offensively and defensively.

“We watch player personnel, so we have clips of what their strengths are. So our players have an understanding of when they’re guarding a certain player, they know how to guard them,” she said.

In scouting Virginia, McConnell-Serio noted that its individual talent stuck out. Besides Randolph, who averages 17 points a game, Virginia’s senior center Sarah Imovbioh averages 12.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game — along with other talented guards and forwards, such as freshman guard Mikayla Venson, who notches 11.4 points per game.

“They’re very talented. They have a great post game. They play four post players and they can all score. They have guards on the perimeter who are quick and very skilled with dribble penetration, stepback, pull up jumpers,” McConnell-Serio said.

Kiesel added that she believes Virginia’s record is deceiving and not reflective of its talent level.

“Their record doesn’t show how good they are,” Kiesel said. “They were in a lot of good games, a lot of close ones, they just didn’t pull them out.”

Kiesel, along with Pitt’s other guards, will face a challenge in guarding Randolph, who has transitioned from the ACC Women’s Sixth Player of the Year last year into one of the top scoring guards in the conference. Her success partly stems from her pull up jumper, which Kiesel said is her go-to move. 

Preventing a pull up jumper can be difficult, as playing up to block the shot can lead to easier drives to the hoop. Kiesel, however, said the solution is simple.

“Not backing off and trying to make every shot she takes contested,” Kiesel said.

Virginia employs an overall offensive strategy that relies heavily on ball screens, as well as clearing space for its star players, Randolph and Imovbioh.

“They’ll push it in transition when the have the opportunity. They run a lot of side pick and rolls, double high screens, double staggers for the guards. They’ll iso their guards, they’ll iso their post players,” McConnell-Serio said.

Defensively, Virginia primarily employs a man-to-man scheme, though it’ll also mix in a 2-3 zone and a 3-quarter court press to disrupt opponents. 

Relaxing and playing soundly against this defense will be important, as Virginia will be anxious to get off to a quick start and end its losing streak. Kiesel, though, isn’t as concerned about Virginia’s mindset, as she’s only focused on her team’s intentions.

“We just have to play our game and not necessarily worry about what they’re trying to do,” Kiesel said. “They want to win, but we want to win just as much.”

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Pitt hosts Virginia to continue NCAA tournament push