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The Pitt women’s basketball team concluded their season on March 1st with a 72-60 loss to North Carolina in the opening round of the ACC tournament. With a 13-17 record, their second consecutive 13-win season, the Panthers failed to reach postseason tournament eligibility. While the team is hardly in dire straits, head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio raised the expectations for the Pitt women’s basketball program in 2014/2015 when her team won 20 games and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. On Friday, Pittsburgh Sports Now spoke with Coach Serio to discuss the Panthers’ 2016/2017 season, and what is required for her team to once again reach postseason play.
“In all honesty, this season was disappointing because we had expectations of finishing higher in the ACC standings, making the postseason—whether that had been the WNIT or NCAA tournament,” said Coach Serio. “Realistically, we were two games shy of qualifying for the WNIT. With a young team, we were hoping to be in the postseason, and really the expectations were high going in. And so, in my standards, this was a disappointing season.”
With the return of impact players like Yacine Diop, the Panthers were expected to top their 13-wins from 2015/2016. Diop’s 10.4 points-per-game in 2015/2016 ranked second on the team, and her production only figured to grow this year. Unfortunately, Diop was lost to injury before the season ever began.
“We had high expectations coming into this season, especially with the addition of Brandi Harvey-Carr; with the way the returning players had produced over the summer and the improvement we had seen. Especially in the player Yacine Diop, who was one of the finalists for the Senegal Olympic team … She was playing her best basketball, had a great summer. So we were excited and very optimistic about what our team would look like for this season. Unfortunately, in October Yacine Diop goes down with a stress fracture in her foot, and ultimately misses the entire season and has surgery. In her absence, it really hurt us. She was our most athletic guard, she was our best guard; she was a scorer, she’s a rebounder, our best defender.
Diop’s on-court contributions were unquestionably missed. Panther fans should not worry about her status for next season, though. According to Coach Serio, Diop’s recovery from the stress fracture is progressing well, and she is expected to return at full-strength in 2017/2018.
“Yacine is doing great,” revealed Coach Serio. “She is off the crutches, just as of the other day. We had postseason workouts and she walked out onto the court without the crutches for the first time. She has either been on crutches or a scooter, and non-wait bearing, since October … She ended up having a stress fracture. It didn’t heal, they waited another six weeks and then she ended up ultimately having another surgery, which just prolonged it. But she’s doing great. The rehab is going very well. We expect a full recovery and she will be healthy and ready to go for next season.
“[Yacine] is a difference maker for us; I mean, there’s no doubt about it. When we were a young team and lost her, it hurt our depth, it hurt our rotations. But not only her, we lost [sophomore] Tania Lamb, who was another athletic guard who had a knee injury and missed the entire season. We had those two get injured, and then we had two starters leave in Stasha Carey and Fred Potvin. When you’re looking at going into the season without three starters from a year ago, we lost a lot of experience and it made us even younger to be able to compete at a high level when you have seven teams that are ranked in your conference.”
The injury to Diop, paired with the offseason transfers of Stasha Carey and Fred Potvin, forced Coach Serio to rely on true freshmen Jasmine Whitney and Alayna Gribble this season. Both girls received significant workloads, and each showcased their talents in promising—but injury riddled—rookie campaigns.
“Jasmine Whitney had come in and was playing with so much confidence,” said Serio. “I thought we were a better team with her at the point, just with the pace of the game, her scoring ability, her playmaking ability. So she had earned a starting position at the beginning of the season. Unfortunately, when you talk about being plagued with injuries, she ended up having a herniated disc in her back, which the wear and tear of her first Division I season took its toll. Right before Christmas, we had to shut her down for a week to ten days and try to get that to calm down. And then she came back after Christmas, and she was limited during practice; she was only doing certain things—it was all non-contact. What was happening was [junior] Aysia Bugg was running the point in practice, and then in a game, Jasmine would start and play the point. It was really disrupting our rhythm, but we were trying to get as much as we could from Jasmine, at least at game time. So with that, we ended up changing the starting lineup after we started playing in the conference because of her being limited.
“But she is a point guard that I’m excited about her future if we can keep her healthy, and keep that disc calmed down. She’ll have to play with pain, as tolerated. She’s just tough. Every time she hit the floor, I would cringe not knowing how much pain she was in each time she hit the floor. She would take charges. She was on the floor after loose balls. And she’s someone who I think will continue to improve her scoring ability.”
Coach Serio’s assessment of Alayna Gribble’s debut season mirrored that of Jasmine Whitney.
“Alayna Gribble? The kid can flat out shoot it. But she’s proving to us that she is more than just a shooter; she is working on her game of being a scorer when teams try to take her being a threat at the three-point line away for us. So she’s working hard on her game and her skillset. But again, an injury to her: she had plantar fascia on both feat. And one was a little more just plantar fascia … Again, we had to shut her down at some point during the season to get those calmed down.
“When you talk about a young team trying to get into a flow—and into a rhythm—it was very difficult with all these injuries of who was practicing, who wasn’t; who was playing, who wasn’t. Once she was healthy again, I think she was good for us. We have high expectations for her in the future because she is so talented.”
The issues surrounding Serio’s team in 2016/2017 were primarily uncontrollable. In fact, even the controllable, coachable struggles can be attributed to injury-related inconsistency within the lineup. With players like Jasmine Whitney missing time in practice, the cohesion Serio’s team could establish during the week rarely translated to game day.
“The non-conference [schedule], our starting lineup was pretty much the same. Going into conference play, we were searching for answers. People were practicing well so we would give them a shot in games. Or they had a good game, so we were trying to get them [playing time]. We had changed our starting lineup so many times looking for answers, looking for the right combinations among our team. With that, I think not being able to transfer what we were doing in practice [hurt us] … Not being able to score the basketball. We just struggled at times to score the basketball, and that was the frustrating part because I’ve seen it—what they’re capable of in practice—and a lot of times it wasn’t transferring to games.”
Not everyone struggled to score this season, though. Sophomore Brenna Wise, a high school graduate of Pittsburgh’s own Vincentian Academy, led the Panthers in scoring for the second straight season with 14.3 points-per-game. She also led Pitt in rebounds with 6.4 boards-per-game. That is why it came as a surprise when, a week ago, the University of Pittsburgh announced Wise will transfer from Pitt to pursue her personal goals at another program. Coach Serio released a statement at the time of the announcement, wishing Wise well in her pursuit of a new basketball program. In the same statement, Serio also mentioned that it is a “privilege to be part of the foundation of a winning culture” at Pitt, while expressing her intentions to continue recruiting “well-rounded, team-oriented student-athletes.” On Friday afternoon, the Panthers’ head coach was willing to expound upon the Wise situation.
“I think what she said in the paper, what she told me, is that for her to accomplish her goals, that she needs to go somewhere else. Ironically, when you’re the face of the program and you’re a team’s leading scorer, leading rebounder, I’m not sure what those goals are specifically. She would have to answer to that. But apparently, there was a frustration, of her.
“For me, I’m all about team. Our players play as a team. It’s not one individual who carries a team. We win and lose together. We work hard to prepare for success in the classroom, on the court, and that’s not going to change. I want people here that have two feet in. I want people that buy into our system, believe in us as coaches, have two feet in and want to be here at Pitt. There’s a sense of pride when you wear that uniform and you step out on that court. And I think the situation I was in coming to Pitt, it was obvious that this was a struggling program; they hadn’t won a Big East game in two seasons, going 0-34. We knew coming in that we had to change the work ethic, we had to change the mindset; we had to change the culture and get players to buy into what it takes to be successful. Brenna did buy into a lot of that. I have praised her through and through as our hardest worker. [Brenna] spent the most time in the gym; first one in, last one to leave. She’s a complete package. But obviously, right now, she doesn’t feel this is the right fit for her.”
Wise’s decision to transfer is now in the past, as is Pitt’s injury plagued 13-win season. Playing the “what if” game would serve little good to the Panthers, which is why Coach Serio wasted little time in directing her team’s focus towards next season.
“We’ve already moved past it,” Coach Serio said, regarding the 2016/2017 season. “The players had two weeks off after our last game, and we’ve already started postseason workouts. There’s a great sense of enthusiasm and energy in the gym right now. Right now, we’re working on fundamentals. It’s not about what offense we’re running; it’s all very fundamental of what we need to do to get better at doing. A lot of that is having players be able to create their own shot, be able to create for their teammates. We’re working on our repetition so it carries over. I think sometimes when you’re in your season, you don’t get your repetition. So that’s what the goal of this postseason is, to get them some things that are very comfortable and automatic when they go to game situations.”
There is no better way to look towards the future than securing the talent of tomorrow along the recruiting trail. Currently, the Panthers have three signees in the Class of 2017: Pika Rodriguez, Cara Judkins, and Jaala Henry. By Coach Serio’s assessment, each of these players should hold a prominent role in the Panthers’ lineup for years to come.
“Pika Rodriguez—her real name is Angelique, but she goes by Pika—she is from Connecticut and she was just named all-state in the state of Connecticut. She is a shooter, a scorer, about 6-feet, and she played last summer for the Puerto Rican national team. I had the opportunity to coach against her when we had gone to Chile last summer in the tournament of Americas … We’re excited about her at the guard spot.
“We’ve added two post players: Cara Judkins and Jaala Henry. They’re both 6’3”, both very skilled, bring size, bring presence, and can run the floor. Even though we’ll be young in the post, we’re excited about what they bring.”
Per Coach Serio, the Class of 2017 remains incomplete; she intends upon signing “possibly three” more players in the upcoming months. When those players arrive, they will join a team led by a determined coach who is aware of the improvements that must be made to achieve success.
“We need to get better. That’s the bottom line. We have to get better in every aspect: offensively, defensively. Defense will be effort and players buying in. We can coach that and get them to buy in, but our offensive skillset needs to improve. We need to have shooters who can just flat-out knock down shots. We have to have people who can create off of the dribble. We have to have a post presence inside.
“Working with our players right now, I’m excited about our future. It doesn’t matter what we run, we have to have players to win. So that’s where recruiting is a big part of it, and bringing in players that can compete at a high level. It’s a work ethic that we’re instilling. It’s getting that fire back. I think watching our team from this past season, we competed, but we just didn’t have that extra drive that we needed to finish some games. We were just going through some motions, and that was a disappointment for me, because I look at our team as an extension of me on the court. If they are going to reflect my personality and the way I coach, we need to play hard, we need to compete, and we need to do it for forty minutes. We had spurts of greatness, and then we had some rough stretches to say the least. And a lot of it came coming out of the locker room after halftime. We had some dry spells in the third quarter. That’s why we were trying different lineups, and different things, to see if we could come out of the locker room a little stronger in the second half. So we just have to be able to extend the good things and minimize those droughts.”
Suzie McConnell-Serio didn’t string together five consecutive 20-win seasons at Duquesne for no reason. She didn’t break the Panthers’ two year streak without a win in conference play for no reason, either. If Coach Serio’s team can remain healthy throughout the 2017/2018 campaign, there should be no reason to believe that the Pitt women’s basketball won’t return to postseason play next year.