To say that Pitt’s women’s basketball team was young last season would be a bit of an understatement.
The Panthers carried four juniors and just one senior in Aysia Bugg. She, Gabbie Green and Cara Judkins were Pitt’s only regular veteran contributors, and Green was the only one to start every game. The rest of the roster was budding – a collection of inexperienced freshmen and sophomores.
And sure, their mistakes showed often in Pitt’s 5-26 campaign, but the group – particularly last season’s freshmen – never gave up. They weren’t gentle or lost. They were armed with grit, determination and a desire to get better. Those qualities shined through near the end of the season, as Pitt upset Notre Dame and gave Georgia Tech a good fight in the ACC tournament, providing a foundation they could build on for the next year.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, that next season is here. It begins Wednesday at noon at the Petersen Event Center, as the Panthers take on George Mason in the first contest of a limited non-conference slate.
While much attention has been given to Pitt’s newcomers, its nucleus is still the trio of players that clawed their way through a difficult season last year as freshmen. Dayshanette Harris, Amber Brown and Rita Igbokwe are all a year older now. They’ve been through an ACC schedule. They know the challenges ahead.
And the hope is that they’ve all matured and improved their individual games. If so, expect the Panthers to outperform the projections from the ACC preseason poll – which picked them to finish in the bottom two – by a wide margin.
“I think all of that class – their maturity, is the thing that, you know… you can’t ever compensate for experience. And once you have a group that, now whenever us as coaches say a certain thing, they know what I’m talking about,” Pitt head coach Lance White said. “Before last year, they didn’t understand until they got hit in the face.
“I think that their mentality is to really put us in a different category. That’s what they want to be able to do. And in order to do that, they’re willing to pay the price and sacrifice time and work on their skills in order to really compete and play at the highest level against the best. And that’s what they want to do.”
Harris remembers her first day on Pitt’s campus in 2019. She hadn’t finished unpacking yet, but Igbokwe and Brown came by her room and said, “We’re going to the gym.”
That’s where the bond began.
“I know that we’re all part of this long ride and I know what they want. They know what I want. And we know that in order to achieve that goal, we have to have each other’s back and be there for one another,” Harris said.
Brown and Igbokwe quickly became cornerstones in the frontcourt for Pitt last season, emerging as players White could build around.
A 6-footer from Monroe, Louisiana, Brown is a versatile and lanky forward who’s tougher than a two-dollar steak. While undersized, she didn’t back down from UNC’s Janelle Bailey, N.C. State’s Elissa Cunane or Louisville’s Kylee Shook. Brown took home ACC Freshman of the Week honors twice, led Pitt in rebounds and minutes played and was fourth in scoring with 9.1 points per-game. Her best game might’ve been a Feb. 9 contest at Notre Dame, where she stuffed the stat sheet for 17 points, seven boards and five assists.
Igbokwe turned out to be an intimidating enforcer and a talented rim-protector. While she played just 19.5 minutes a game, the 6-foot-4 native of Jonesboro, Georgia was third in the ACC in blocked shots with 60 swats, breaking a 34-year-old program record for a Pitt freshman. Only Shook – the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year – and Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley spiked more balls. Igbokwe also averaged 6.8 rebounds and 4.5 points per-game for Pitt.
Brown and Igbokwe were one of just two pairs of freshmen teammates last season to average at least 6.9 rebounds per-game each. The other duo played for Oregon State. With a combined 14.5 rebounds per-game, Brown and Igbokwe were the top freshmen rebounding tandem in the ACC.
“It’s been fun to watch them progress,” White said. “And I still think that’s been one of the best things – if you had to say one of the best things about COVID was, all of our coaches have been here, every practice, every day. We haven’t been gone recruiting. And just to have that time in the gym and coach, and they hear our voices… That’s been the biggest benefit of all of this is that we really gotten some good work. And our kids have really bought into that that part of the process of getting better.”
The player whose role might change this season for the better is Harris’s. She played point guard some and also served as a bit of a combo guard last year. This season – with the addition of former Mountain West Freshman of the Year Jayla Everett – Harris might be off the ball more as a traditional two-guard.
A 5-foot-7 product of Youngstown, Ohio, Harris was thrown into the fire immediately last season, starting the first 11 games of her collegiate career. And the result was a mixed bag. She scored 22 points against Duquesne and 24 points at Penn State, but also piled up turnovers and had eight games where she didn’t top 10 points.
“I feel like in the beginning, I was playing kind of timid and not playing myself,” Harris said. “I felt like I was out there playing soccer instead of basketball. And then, as the season went on, they built me up and told me that, ‘It’s your world. We need you.’”
After a stint on the bench, Harris started the final 13 games of the season. Over that stretch, she averaged 17.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists per-game while shooting 38 percent from the floor. She also made 18 three-pointers over those games after connecting on just two in her first 17 games.
Across the country, Harris was the only true freshman from a Power 5 program to lead her team in scoring, assists and steals last season.
For Gabbie Green, one of the team’s three seniors this season, she noticed Harris getting better last year as her confidence grew.
“She’s always been able to attack the basket, and I think that was good for us,” Green said of Harris. “I also believe that, us as teammates, were in her ear, like, you know, ‘If you can go, go ahead.’ And I think us giving her that push gave her the freedom to just be her – go score, go get a basket.”
Harris definitely followed Green’s advice in the ACC tournament vs. Notre Dame. To cap off an outing in which she had 20 points, 10 rebounds and three assists, Harris carved up the Irish defense on the final play of the game, muscling past defenders and gliding toward the basket for the game-winning bucket. Harris poured in another 21 points in the Panthers’ second round loss to Georgia Tech.
“It definitely motivates me to want to have that experience over and over again,” Harris said of her shot vs. Notre Dame.
Listening to her teammates and leaning on them is something Harris learned last season. She’ll take that lesson with her into her sophomore campaign.
“I’ve gotten a little bit of experience to know what it takes. I feel like I’ve grown in that aspect,” Harris said. “Knowing some things my teammates are capable of… Relying on them, and they rely on me.”
The trio of Harris, Brown and Igbokwe are expected to start, play big minutes and crucial roles for the Panthers this season, White’s third at the helm. As they improve, so should the tallies in the win column for Pitt.