PITTSBURGH — Pitt women’s basketball junior guard Jasmine Whitney recalled the April 18 date that Lance White was hired to be the team’s coach and one promise he gave stuck with her.
“He told us ‘I’m winning the City Game, I’m not losing,'” she said. “Ever since he got here, we’ve been working.”
Pitt fulfilled White’s promise with a 66-58 City Game victory that ended a four-game losing streak in the rivalry and represents the first triumph at the Palumbo Center in 10 years.
“Obviously I am very excited about how the team went out and competed today, especially in the third and fourth quarter,” White said. “They battled. There were a lot of excuses, a lot of players were sick, all of that stuff, but it was never an option for this basketball team which I am proud of. To win my first City Game, I am excited about that as well.”
This win brings Pitt to 9-5, while Duquesne falls to 5-7 on the season.
“I think Coach White did a great job of getting his players to play to their strengths and be in position to have success,” Duquesne coach Dan Burt said. “His players never gave up. It is a victory that is deserved for them.”
What excited Pitt the most about its latest victory was that the team is trending upwards and the smiles both immediately following the final horn and in a postgame press conference, were for this exact reason.
“It’s really satisfying to see the work we put in,” said Whitney. “We might not have won this game a couple of weeks ago, but we’ve grown every game. I’m just so happy we put a whole game together.”
THE NUMBER NINE
Pitt noted that it has started slow in games this season, so when it opened this contest on a 9-0 run, it brought some excitement and it was because of this start that Whitney felt her team played a complete game for the first time this season.
One obstacle Pitt had to deal with in the first half was foul trouble as three of its starters had two fouls and Cassidy Walsh picked up three.
With Duquesne taking the lead at the end of the first quarter, Pitt was going to have to overcome a change in momentum and do so using its depth.
“Our players were able to step up,” Walsh said. “People off the bench did things that they weren’t doing in the past, or didn’t have a chance to. We just kept focus and came back in the second half ready to go.”
Though Pitt led at half, it was Duquesne which got off to the quick third quarter start, refusing to go away easy on its homecourt.
In a run which included two three-point baskets from Chassidy Omogrosso, Duquesne led by nine points, which forced Pitt to call a timeout.
Normally during a timeout, it is the team’s coach who does the talking but White trusted Walsh, who took control of the team.
Foul trouble forced Pitt to start a different lineup but right around the time of play stopping, the Panthers were set to bring those players back in.
Knowing this wrinkle could change the direction of this game, Walsh provided a calming influence to her team.
“I just have so much confidence in this team,” she said. “We had a whole half to play. What we did in the first half was great, but what we can do in the second half is better. We just kept a focus and continued to push that attack mentality and we got it done.”
Even down nine points, White was smiling because he heard what his senior guard was saying and it was a clear sign that his team remained engaged.
“That was a huge point,” said White. “Whenever the team is so invested that they can speak the truth, then you know you’re becoming a basketball team. To see players step up and have that voice, in those timeouts is crucial to what we will do throughout the year.”
Walsh led by example making several timely shots and by quarter’s end, the nine point Duquesne lead was gone, with a tie showing on the scoreboard.
“I really just kept the focus and stayed engaged,” Walsh said. “My shots weren’t falling in the first half but I knew they would in the second. I knew everyone had my back.”
As Pitt went back to its bench, there was an understanding that it regained momentum and now had to close out the game.
“It was nice to feel like they had to call a timeout instead of us,” said Whitney. “That’s the best feeling in the world when they did that in the third quarter.”
In the fourth quarter, Walsh continued to make timely shots and Pitt was able to turn defense into quick offense, drawing foul calls and making free throws to strengthen its lead.
When the final buzzer did sound, Pitt celebrated its victory and Walsh found assistant coach Terri Mitchell and the two hugged. Discovering this, White went over to join them and the three celebrated together.
In this game, Pitt saw Walsh as a coach on the court, saw Whitney make baskets when the team needed and several players found a role which proved valuable in this game.
“I think this is a big moment in our progression,” White said. “This is a game that a lot of people in the city really value. As the head coach of Pitt, I value this game. To be able and see our kids come out and perform for 40 minutes, that’s the type of team we have to be and what we have to become in the future.”
A CHANGE IS GONNA COME
As Pitt was celebrating its victory, Duquesne quietly regrouped at halfcourt and the jog back to the locker room could not have felt longer.
Simply put, the entire team was embarrassed.
Despite the ups and downs this season, Duquesne could usually count on a City Game victory. The recent history of this rivalry said as much and Pitt on paper seemed to show a team that Duquesne could have a bounce-back game on the defensive side as the visitors came in averaging just over 60 points a game.
Instead, Duquesne went into the locker room hurt, upset and probably confused.
“We are a broken team,” Burt said. “We are in a place where I don’t have a whole lot of answers. I have not been 5-7 for 20-plus years. At this point, I don’t have players that can give the answers either and that’s evident by the stats.”
Those stats show four of the five starters having a negative +/- and its three top bench options in terms of minutes played having the same.
The senior trio of Kadri-Ann Lass, Chassidy Omogrosso and Julijana Vojonovic combined to shoot 16-for-45 from the field, which is not going to win many games.
“It’s a very emotional situation because it is the City Game and it means a lot,” said Burt. “We’re embarrassed. You have a nine-point lead against your rival and you lack toughness. That’s coaching because I should have been subbing people in. End of the day you either want to do it or you don’t. Our effort shows we want to jack shots up and beat people with our offense.”
Duquesne likely views the fourth quarter as a late Christmas present to Pitt in that they had open looks, but they were very early in the shot clock and when said shots did not fall, it made getting back on defense harder.
Pitt played like it wanted to win this game more, and Duquesne closed the game shooting 19% in the final 10 minutes.
The loss was crushing enough that Burt was the only voice from Duquesne’s side which spoke following the game. In the past, Burt has not been afraid to be critical of his team and Saturday was no different.
“We make 300 threes a day and 100 free throws a day,” he said. “Once kids shoot it on the gun they have to text me. Everyone shoots 60% from the field and 85% or better from the line. When no one is guarding them they make shots but under the bright lights it ain’t happening now. We’re soft. As a coaching staff we had to recognize that sooner and we did not. As players we should be more aggressive team, tougher and that falls back on me that we’re not, so blame me.”
Duquesne being at 5-7 is uncharacteristic for a team used to winning 20 games and playing in the postseason, but for either of those to happen, something will need to change.
All season long, Burt has talked about change coming but has remained loyal to those who got Duquesne to where it is as a program.
This loss clearly stung Burt who perhaps finally, is ready to act and understands that several sleepless nights await until Wednesday night’s game against Temple.
“The leash is gone,” said Burt. “We’ve played 12 games and we’re 5-7 so things aren’t working, so something will change tomorrow. There is a frustration because there is a belief in your seniors for what they’ve done in their past and the belief they will come through for you. Belief more than anything. The numbers prove otherwise, so change is coming.”