The Pitt women’s basketball players’ season ended earlier than they might have wanted — but don’t expect them to wallow in the offseason.
“Obviously we’re all sad and disappointed that we didn’t have a postseason, but at the same time, we finished with pride and went down fighting,” freshman forward Brenna Wise said.
After earning an NCAA tournament berth and a first-round victory last season, the team took a step backward this year, finishing with an overall record of 13-18, with only four conference victories, all coming on the road. But with young talent and plenty of time, the team feels poised for some eventual March Madness success of its own.
The Panthers didn’t struggle early on, claiming victories in the first three games of the season.
Despite dropping two of its next three games at the Paradise Jam tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the team rebounded well and finished non-conference play with an 8-5 record.
But when the calendar turned and ACC play began, the Panthers tripped up. They lost their first six conference games before eventually earning their first conference win on the road at Virginia.
“It wasn’t necessarily that we were just losing,” Wise said, “we just weren’t finishing. We were in most of the games. We just weren’t pulling out the wins.”
The obvious reason appears in the gaping hole a graduation left in Pitt’s program.
Pitt lost star senior point guard and veteran leader Brianna Kiesel to the WNBA, leaving a major gap in leadership, ballhandling and scoring this season.
Lacking an experienced ball-handler, the Panthers struggled to limit turnovers, which led to easy baskets for opposing teams. When Kiesel left, she also took away a consistent scoring threat with the game on the line.
“I think where we struggled was not identifying a go-to player. We never had the consistency of having that go-to player every single game,” head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio said.
Although the team still struggled to win games, McConnell-Serio noticed an attitude shift in her players as the season progressed.
“We were focused, we were more confident, we played harder,” McConnell-Serio said. “I just think we got stronger and got better.”
The team’s most momentous step forward came after it earned its first ACC tournament victory against North Carolina, where the Panthers gained more experience playing at the collegiate level and playing with each other.
“We were able to figure out how to play with one another and really connect toward the end of the year,” sophomore forward Stasha Carey said.
Forced to play against more experienced frontcourts in the last two seasons, Carey, one of this year’s returning starters and the team leader in blocks and steals, said the team is ready to graduate from underclassmen to veterans.
“I think experience won’t necessarily be a problem,” she said. “I think it will be something that helps us.”
Wise reiterated Carey’s thoughts.
“With all the experience we gained this year and the learning process and growth, we really built a lot of chemistry throughout the year. We don’t lose anyone, and that’s going to play to our advantage,” Wise said.
With nearly the entire team returning, Pitt will add two freshmen recruits, Jasmine Whitney and Alayna Gribble, and South Carolina transfer, Shay Colley.
Pitt announced that Colley, a former top recruit at the beginning of this semester, can’t play with the team until after the fall 2016 semester, due to NCAA transfer guidelines.
The state of next year’s roster — which includes the return of all five starters — means higher expectations on a Panther squad working toward the NCAA tournament and the ability to contend for an ACC Championship.
“We know we are a work in progress, but next year our goal is to get back to the middle of the conference. We want to be an NCAA tournament team — that is where we want to be on a consistent basis,” McConnell-Serio said.
Getting to that point will require the Panthers to finish more games on the right side of the win-loss column next season.
Fortunately for them, McConnell-Serio has her team pulsing with confidence.
“Coach told us throughout the season, if you give yourself a chance in the fourth quarter, it is a whole different game. If you can make it a game in the fourth quarter, it’s all about who is going to finish it,” Wise said. “And I think in the years to come, we’re going to get it done.”