A year ago, the Pitt’s women’s basketball team entered the ACC Tournament with nothing to lose. With that fearless mindset, they walked into the Greensboro Coliseum and upset Notre Dame, notching a program-building victory, one that gave last season’s first-year class crucial confidence.
This year, the same is true. The Panthers have been battered by injuries and have had their season paused and delayed due to the pandemic. At this point, the players are just grateful for the opportunity to take the court.
But this specific group is also anxious to prove itself on the conference’s biggest stage in Greensboro.
“It’s such a crazy, wild year,” head coach Lance White said. “We’re really excited to have another chance to play another game and then keep going from there. For our young little squad of kids that are learning how to play at the college level, we’re extremely excited. Any chance we get to play helps us moving our program forward.
“I’m excited that we’ve gotten to this point.”
As the two lowest seeds, Pitt (5-13; 3-12 ACC) and Boston College (6-11; 2-11 ACC) will tip off the tournament on Wednesday at 2 p.m. The winner will go on to play No. 5 Syracuse on Thursday.
It’s been proven many times in college basketball that in the postseason, anything can happen. Pitt will have a decent chance to win Wednesday as it faces a Boston College team that it bested on the road just a few weeks ago, 83-80.
The key in that game for Pitt on Feb. 16 was the stellar play of Jayla Everett and Dayshanette Harris as the backcourt duo combined for 37 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds.
While Everett, an All-ACC honorable mention selection, will be surely relied on again Wednesday, it’s unclear if Harris will be ready to go. The 5-foot-7 native of Youngstown, Ohio hasn’t played since injuring her right knee against Louisville on Feb. 18.
Should Pitt have to go on without Harris, White feels good about turning the keys of the Panthers’ offense over to Sandrine Clesca. It wasn’t in White’s initial plans to thrust the Canadian freshman into a key role this soon, but Clesca has responded lately with some impressive play.
Making the first start of her collegiate career, Clesca led Pitt in scoring at then-ranked No. 2 N.C. State last week with 12 points. On Sunday at Georgia Tech, she defended hard and finished with eight points, two rebounds and an assist in 27 minutes of action.
For White, the silver lining to Harris’ injury has been pressing fast-forward on Clesca’s development.
“We had pegged Sandrine to be our point guard of the future. And now, that future is now,” White said. “We’ve been really slow in her progression to get her ready to compete and takeover… She’s responded incredibly well, like a champ. She’s so steady. Highs and lows are not Sandrine – she’s pretty steady all the time, which our basketball team needs.”
Over her last three games, Clesca is averaging 8.3 points, 1.6 assists and 2.3 rebounds per-game while shooting 47% from the floor. She hasn’t taken many, but she’s also knocked down 4-of-7 three-point attempts this season, a 57% clip.
Clesca, who played her high school ball in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was a late addition to White’s 2020 recruiting haul, committing to Pitt just this past August. She was once invited to Canada’s U17 national team camp.
“She controls the basketball and manages the game,” White said. “And I’ve been really, really pleased with how she’s jumped in and handled what she’s had to do in these three games.”
Other newcomers have played well for Pitt lately too, specifically Cynthia Ezeja, who has been phenomenal on the boards. The redshirt freshman from Athens, Greece had 13 rebounds against Georgia Tech and grabbed seven against N.C. State. She also had three blocks and three assists over those two games too. In Pitt’s last meeting with Boston College, Ezeja had five boards, two steals and six points in 14 minutes.
Emy Hayford was another bright spot for Pitt in its 65-60 loss to third-seeded Georgia Tech, as the sophomore from the Netherlands finished with six points and five assists off the bench.
Despite the Georgia Tech game resulting in a loss, Pitt played pretty well and fought hard against a team that’s an absolute lock to make the NCAA tournament. White saw it as a positive.
“The growth between last year to this year is, you know, that we’ve been competitive,” White said. “With four minutes to go in the fourth quarter of most of our games, we’ve been competitive in it. Now we have to learn how to win… I thought Georgia Tech was one of our better games of just consistently doing the things that we have to do in order to win.”
Pitt will find out quickly Wednesday if it can carry the momentum from its strong showing against the Yellow Jackets into its matchup with the Eagles.