GREENSBORO, N.C. — It was always going to be extremely difficult for Pitt’s women’s basketball team to replicate the historic accomplishment it pulled off Wednesday, getting an unlikely upset win over Notre Dame in the first round of the ACC tournament.
But, as if they were flying in the Millennium Falcon with Han Solo, the Panthers weren’t concerned with whatever the odds were. With nothing to lose, the Panthers were going to fight. They were going to try and beat Georgia Tech and make the ACC tournament quarterfinals for the first time in school history.
And Pitt put forth an admirable effort, but couldn’t quite pull it off. The Yellow Jackets were just a little bit bigger, a little bit faster and little bit sharper. Georgia Tech topped Pitt 68-58 Thursday night in the old Greensboro Coliseum, putting an end to the Panthers’ 2019-20 campaign.
While Pitt (5-26; 2-18 ACC) is sure to feel sour after this defeat, the Panthers should recognize that their future is bright under second-year head coach Lance White. Four of Pitt’s five starters Thursday were freshman, and another who played significant minutes – Ismini Prapa – is just a sophomore. The fifth starter was JUCO transfer Gabbie Green.
No seniors took the court for Pitt over the past two days, and the Panthers still beat Notre Dame — historically one of the best teams in the conference – and pushed an NCAA tournament-bound Georgia Tech team to the brink.
“I was really pleased with our effort for a long period of time,” White said. “These kids… I told them, this year they’re going to have to make all the mistakes underneath the bright lights. For four freshmen, a junior college player, they have come in and done everything I’ve asked.
“To see that their growth and their games have improved, it’s really, as a coach, rewarding to watch them do that.”
Pitt never appeared to be totally out-matched against Georgia Tech (20-10; 11-8 ACC) despite what was on paper. Every player the Yellow Jackets trotted out was 5-foot-10 or taller. Pitt only had four players of that sort, and just two in the starting lineup.
Still, Pitt didn’t get blown out in the rebounding battle or scoring inside. Georgia Tech had an 36-30 advantage on the boards and outscored Pitt in the paint 28-22.
“I give a lot of credit to Lance. I think he’s an excellent coach. He game-planned well. I thought what he did was tough for us to get the ball on the block, and he’s got some little freshmen, dang, they’re going to be good in the coming years,” Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner said. “I thought they guarded us very well, they defended us well and didn’t allow us to just throw the ball inside.”
The Panthers had an early lead, taking a 4-2 advantage at the 8:27 mark in the first quarter. The rest of the first half was a back and forth affair, with Pitt last taking a lead at the 6:57 mark in the second quarter, going ahead by three points. By halftime, the Yellow Jackets had taken a five-point advantage.
— Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch) March 6, 2020
What became apparent was that Pitt simply didn’t have a good answer for Yellow Jackets’ forward Francesca Pan, an All-ACC Second Team selection. She finished the game leading all scorers on the court with 26 points, three rebounds and three assists.
Where Pan really shined was in the closing moments of the game. In the fourth quarter alone, she scored 12 points as the Yellow Jackets pulled away to lead by as much as 15 points.
One of the big differences for Pitt between Wednesday vs. Notre Dame and Thursday’s clash against Georgia Tech was that the Panthers weren’t nearly as efficient from three-point range. Pitt was 9-of-16 from outside against the Fighting Irish, but just 3-of-13 from that distance for a 23 percent clip vs. Georgia Tech.
Pitt’s 18 turnovers, of which Georgia Tech scored 20 points off of, didn’t help the Panthers either.
“We made a couple of turnovers, and that hurts us, obviously,” White said. “The thing that Pan is able to do, obviously as a senior player that knows how to get to the free throw line, knows how to score buckets and all of that, and it’s been our Achilles’ heel all year, that things go wrong and then we implode.”
Leading Pitt on the stat sheet was Dayshanette Harris, who recorded her third straight game of at least 20 points – a first for her in impressive freshman campaign. The Youngstown, Ohio native tallied 21 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Harris began the season not really being able to drive to her left and at times seemed one-dimensional. Back in December, she wasn’t a regular starter. But the 5-foot-7 guard kept grinding and became a dynamic All-ACC Freshmen Team selection and a leader for this team.
“It’s been tough. Been a tough road. Didn’t start very well, but I knew that I needed to step up my game a little bit, so in order to do that I needed my teammates to push me in the right direction, and my coaches,” Harris said. “I was pretty proud of the way that we came together these last couple of games, and I can’t wait for you guys to see what we got coming.”
Pitt’s other double-digit scorer was freshman Amber Brown, who totaled 12 points, seven boards, two assists and a block. Green, a junior, chipped in nine points.
“We talked when I first got the job. We had to become more athletic, we had to look like an ACC team, and we had to get competitors. Whenever I’m standing beside (Harris and Brown), they are both of those things,” White said. “I feel great about where we’re going as a program.”
What’s clear heading into this off-season – and what become more obvious in these two ACC tournament games – is that White has a foundation he can build on and a core to build around; young players who are tough, talented, have bought-in and are now battle-tested in arguably the top conference in women’s college basketball.
If these players get better and if White builds on the momentum from this week, the next time Pitt wins an ACC tournament game might not be so surprising. It’ll be expected.
“We are ready to attack the off-season,” Brown said. “Everybody is coming back except for (Aysia Bugg), and we’ve pretty much finished the season without Bugg, but I feel like we’re stronger together. So moving on into the off-season, just attack and skill development. We’re ready to attack everybody else in the next season.”