CHARLOTTE – In appearance and playing style, the women’s basketball team at the University of Pittsburgh is aiming to look a lot different this year.
The only things that will remain the same are head coach Lance White on the sidelines and junior Cara Judkins – the team’s lone returning regular starter – grabbing rebounds. Even Pitt’s uniforms will be different, as they’ve ditched the navy and gold for blue and yellow.
For White, heading into his second season as head coach, these changes are a good thing. He’s hoping that his Panthers will play faster, with an increased level of enthusiasm and with an unmatched toughness.
“I think we’ll be a completely different look of a basketball team and that’s going to be really exciting. I think we bring an energy and a speed that’s going to be much faster than what we played last season,” White said last week at the ACC Tip Off event. “Obviously, a big part of that has to do with rebounding. We have to rebound the basketball better and these kids seem a lot more committed to that end of it.
“We’ll be young, but I like that. They don’t know any better, so they’re going to go as hard as they can and let those kids grow up on the floor in front of all of us… They love the game and they want to get better every game.”
Sixth-year senior Aysia Bugg – who was forced to sit out of the majority of last season due to blood clots – has already noticed a different feel in practice, like an identity is emerging for the Panthers.
“We’re scrappy,” Bugg said. “I think that’s definitely something that coach is instilling in us, that no matter what, no one should out-hustle us. That’s our M.O.”
Last season’s struggles
A year ago, in White’s first season at the helm, the Panthers were not scrappy, or anything really resembling the adjective on most nights.
The Panthers went 11-20 overall and 2-14 in ACC play, topped off by a first-round exit in the ACC tournament. Of the ACC’s 15 teams last season, Pitt ranked 14th in offense, 12th in defense, last in scoring margin, last in free throw percentage, 14th in field goal percentage and last in defensive rebounds.
It was — in the simplest terms — a struggle, and a crash course on being a head coach for White. He quickly realized that the old cliché of not being able to build Rome in one day has some truth to it.
“More than anything, I learned patience,” White said. “Coming in, you think you’re going to change it really, really quickly and just have those unrealistic expectations. I think I learned that we’re going to have to be a team of growth and there’s going to have to be milestones and things that we do every day.”
Pitt lost four starters from last year’s team, including its top scorer, its leader in assists and a good three-point shooter. But the turnover might not be such a bad thing. Coming into Pitt this year is White’s first full recruiting class, and it’s a group he’s thrilled about.
“We always said we had to get more athletic and more competitive and I think we’ve done both of those things,” White said.
An exciting freshman class, key transfers
Leading the way of the five-member freshman class is Dayshanette Harris, a 5-foot-7 guard from Youngstown, Ohio. Harris was first-team all-state as a senior and graduated from Ursuline High School as its all-time leading scorer with 2,428 points. She picked Pitt over schools such as Marquette and Iowa, and for her, the decision was easy once she stepped on campus.
“I loved the family atmosphere,” Harris said. “I’m big on family and that’s what the university showed… It’s different. It’s very welcoming. I’ve enjoyed every moment of it.”
The 5-foot-7 Harris was the first recruit that White landed, with her committing in August 2018. Fans can expect to see a lot of her in her first season.
“She’s an electric player. She’s somebody who really provides a spark and she’s definitely an ACC player that’s going to do really great things on the floor,” White said of Harris. “Her energy is amazing. I’m so anxious for people to get to see her play, because she can really make really great plays and just plays extremely hard. She’s going to be a fun one to watch.”
Joining Harris in the freshman class is Emy Hayford, a guard from the Netherlands; Amber Brown, a guard from Arkansas; Cynthia Ezeja, a forward from Greece; and Rita Igbokwe, a forward from Jonesboro, Georgia.
Igbokwe, Brown and Harris were each tabbed as three-star recruits by ESPN. Hayford and Ezeja both played in the FIBA U-18 Women’s European Championships this year for their respective countries.
“I’ll try my best to lead our team,” Harris said. “I think we can all contribute in our different ways. I feel like we all know our roles. We can make as strong an impact that our effort is.”
Two other newcomers to Pitt are a pair of transfers in Gabbie Green and Marcella Lamark, both coming in as juniors.
Green, a 5-foot-7 guard, comes to Pitt after being named a junior college All-American at South Plains College. By way of averaging 14.4 points per-game, she helped take her team to the NJCAA Elite Eight last season. White called Green the team’s “hardest worker” so far through training camp.
Lamark, a 6-foot-4 forward from Brazil, spent last season on the bench at Texas Tech. Before that, she averaged 13.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per-game at the College of Central Florida. White expects to lean on the junior college duo “a lot” because of their work ethic and experience.
“They understand the work and now they have to quickly learn about what it’s like at this level,” White said of Green and Landmark. “They’ve done a tremendous job so far in the preseason. They bring a mentality that’s tougher.”
While White was only returning one regular starter from last year’s team, he was also expecting to have back a key player in Kyla Nelson, a junior from England who had the fourth best three-point shooting percentage in the ACC last year, knocking down 42 of 104 attempts for a 40.4 percent clip.
But late last month, Nelson announced her diagnosis of a neuroendocrine tumor on her appendix.
The initial news for Nelson, White and the Pitt players was gutting. But Nelson has already had surgery, and doctors expect her to return to the court this season. Still, it was a tough time for White’s young Panthers’ squad.
“Getting that news can shake you. You hear the word ‘cancer’ and it’s something that, for all of us – especially with a 21-year-old – you never think that’s possible,” White said. “It’s something that’s more than basketball. It’s about life, and each of those are so similar in terms of the things we teach on the basketball court and how they translate to what happens in life. Kyla has been a trooper. She’s handled it and it’s emotional, but her prognosis is great.”
Having dealt with her own serious health issues, Bugg reached out to Nelson to offer some words of encouragement. In two separate terrible situations, the two guards found something to bond over.
“I’ve told her that I’ve been through it. I’ve been there,” Bugg said. “We always joke and say, ‘Who else would be but me and you’ that this stuff happens to. I’ve just told her to rest and take the time that she needs to process everything and realize that we’re going to be here and this is still going to be here when she gets back.”
Bugg will be the oldest player in the ACC this year and is just one of two active players in the conference to have accumulated at least 700 points, 300 assists and 200 rebounds for her career. Before Bugg left the team last season, she was averaging 14 points per-game over Pitt’s first five contests. That was a big jump up from her junior season, where she was putting up just 7.1 points per-game in 2016-17.
Watching the season go by from the sidelines or a television screen last season helped Bugg understand the game from a different angle.
“It was difficult, of course, but a situation like that was like a stepping stone. It helped me and I’m learning along the way, so I just tried to take it as a learning experience,” Bugg said. “I could see where we had a lot of errors and where those could be fixed and where we needed to make adjustments. I could break it down.”
Bugg also said that she’ll try to push herself to play smarter this season.
“I’ve realized that my ceiling may be a little bit lower,” she says. “But what I can bring is my vocal communication, my leadership and being productive as possible.”
With the almighty Notre Dame losing all five starters to the WNBA Draft last season, two-time ACC Player of the Year Asia Durr departing Louisville, and traditionally solid programs in North Carolina and Georgia Tech bringing in new head coaches, the ACC seems a little more open and leveled off this season.
Still, White is keeping his expectations for year two realistic. But if Pitt adopts a scrappy attitude and plays fast, hard and with an emphasis on rebounding, anything can happen on any given night.
“We’ve got to get two more classes of players where you can then really compete with the top half (of the ACC) but again, we’re making strides toward that,” White said. “I feel much better walking into practice with the athleticism and where we’re going.”