Women’s Basketball: Point guard pipeline: Kiesel thriving under McConnell Serio


The first time Brianna Kiesel remembers shooting a basketball, she resorted to an underhand motion to build the strength to get the ball over the front of the rim. So she continued shooting underhand. Although she kept making baskets, something had to change.

As a freshman point guard on Pitt’s women’s basketball team, Kiesel averaged 13.6 points per game. One year later, she improved that mark to 14.9, showing a modest improvement in her game. But for her to become one of the premier point guards in the Atlantic Coast Conference, she knew something would have to change and her game would need fine-tuning.

While not as important of a change as learning to properly shoot the basketball, the tutelage of head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio has had a powerful effect on Kiesel, a junior who has emerged as one of the leading scorers in the ACC, and has posted double-figure points in all 19 games this season.

A special talent

Kiesel’s father often took her on trips to the park, where she made that first underhand basket. They held shooting practice in the driveway of their home in Utica, N.Y., an industrial city an hour east of Syracuse, N.Y., with a population of roughly 62,000.

Kiesel began her athletic career at a young age, but not on the hard court.

“I was a soccer player before I began playing basketball,” Kiesel said. “I didn’t start playing [basketball] until I was about 10.”

She began playing varsity in eighth grade and broke school records in points, assists and steals at Thomas R. Proctor High School while guiding the girl’s team to its first-ever Section III championship game appearance.

It was some time during those high school years that McConnell-Serio, then the head coach at Duquesne University, just a short trip down Fifth Avenue from Pitt, noticed Kiesel’s special talent.

“I remember watching her in high school, and she was so good,” McConnell-Serio said. “She is a big-time player. I fell in love with her watching her play and I love her game. When you go and watch games in the summertime and with [Amatuer Athletic Union basketball], you can tell there is something special about what she brings to a team.”

McConnell-Serio said she reached out to Kiesel in an attempt to convince her to enroll at Pitt’s crosstown rival, Duquesne, a member of the Atlantic-10 conference, but the star guard said she was set on playing big-time basketball in either the Big East — Pitt’s former conference — or the Big Ten.

“When you see a player of her caliber, it doesn’t hurt to reach out and see if they would have any interest, because you just never know,” McConnell-Serio said. “It is ironic. The first day I was hired [at Pitt], I talked to her about when we tried to recruit her when I was at Duquesne. I told her she didn’t give us the time of day and she laughed.”

Kiesel recalled receiving a few letters from McConnell-Serio, but the two still laugh, recollecting that at the time, Kiesel struggled to even pronounce the name of the school the letters were coming from.

“First of all, I didn’t know how to pronounce Duquesne,” Kiesel said, laughing. “I was so young. I looked at the letters, but I never really considered it.”

‘A little tomboy’

The story of McConnell-Serio picking up the game of basketball, a former point guard in her own right, is a bit different from Kiesel’s path.

As one of eight children, McConnell-Serio had plenty of time to hone her skills in a competitive family. 

Her brother Tom played two seasons at Davidson College and has been coaching at the collegiate level since 1992. Tim, another of her brothers, played at Waynesburg and coaches at Chartiers Valley High School. Her sister Kathy, who played in four NCAA Championship games with Virginia, coached for the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock and worked at Pitt as a recruiting coordinator in 1991. Maureen, yet another of the McConnell children, played at Pitt starting in the late ’80s.

“We were constantly playing sports,” McConnell-Serio said. “Basketball was a big part of our family growing up. I was learning from my brothers, playing in our backyard. That is how I got my start.”

Playing with her brothers might have been the experience that seasoned McConnell-Serio before her first taste of organized basketball. She was forced to play on a boys’ team in fourth grade at her small Catholic grade school in Pittsburgh because they did not yet have a girls’ program.

“I was a little tomboy,” she said. “I would mostly just tag along with my brothers to their practices. The coach asked my parents and me if I’d be interested in playing on the boys’ team. Obviously, they were reluctant at first to let me do that, but for two years I played on the boys’ team. Then we started a girls’ program.”

During those two years on the boys’ team, McConnell-Serio said her first basketball coach, Dan Kail, taught her some of the lessons she still stresses today, especially to her star point guard.

“He coached all of the McConnells — there were eight of us. He emphasized fundamentals. As a coach, that is something that has been a part of me since I started playing,” she said. 

The importance of fundamentals is one that Kail says he still emphasizes to his young players today, but the control McConnell-Serio demonstrated on the court from a young age is something he said he has not seen in almost any other athlete he’s coached.

“She always had that court presence,” Kail said. “At a young age, she was coaching the team on the court even as a young girl. She always played with a fire. All the McConnell kids had a desire to win and always understood the game very well.”

Kail pointed to one instance sometime after he coached McConnell-Serio at Our Lady of Loreto School in Brookline, Pa., that she showed her resolve.

In the 1984 girls’ state championship game, McConnell-Serio led Seton-LaSalle, but the team found themselves down 15 points in the fourth quarter. The Rebels’ comeback effort began in a rather thrilling fashion, with bucket after bucket trimming the deficit. McConnell-Serio, a senior playing in her final high school game, looked like she was going to cap an illustrious high school career with a storybook ending.

As the clock wound down, McConnell-Serio and Seton-LaSalle still trailed. The senior guard went in a for a steal attempt, but quickly pulled back knowing she had already picked up four fouls and one more would disqualify her.

The referee’s whistle blew. McConnell-Serio had just fouled out on a call the referee would later apologize for, admitting that he made a mistake. 

“It was the biggest game of her life to date, but she did not complain,” Kail said. “She walked off the court. No tears, no emotion — took a towel and cheered on her teammates.”

McConnell-Serio’s strong will paid off. Her replacement hit the game-winning shot in the final seconds to capture the state crown.

“It wasn’t about her,” Kail said. “She knew if she showed weakness, the team would be finished. That moment really was an indication of the control she had. It took a lot of character.”

Room to grow

Kiesel wasted no time helping the Panthers get off to a hot start in 2014, earning the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association’s National Player of the Week honors and ACC Player of the Week honors for Jan. 1-7. The award came on the heels of Pitt’s first conference win in almost three years, something the team and its coach talk about as an important building block for the program moving forward.

For Kiesel — often in past years called the “coach on the court” — the experience at the position that her new bench boss brought has been instrumental in elevating her game.

“She knows everything,” Kiesel said of McConnell-Serio. “I’m trying to pick her brain every game. Coach is a role model, especially for me.”

In terms of McConnell-Serio, it is an ongoing process of delivering the skills she has learned over the years from Kail and a host of other coaches to take the game of the Utica product to her highest level yet.

“The things I do with her to try to be successful — she is so quick, she is great off the dribble, being able to attack the basket,” McConnell-Serio said. “The one thing she is getting more comfortable with is being able to shoot the three-point shot. She is not just one-dimensional. She is a playmaker now.

“Our goal is for her to be the complete point guard,” McConnell-Serio said.