In women’s basketball in the ACC, controlling the paint, and being able to defend and rebound in the post is of the utmost importance.
The ACC is littered with talented centers and power forwards, and these are the players who typically have a big impact on if a game is won or lost in the conference.
So, for Pitt to be successful this year, they’ll need a presence down low that isn’t intimidated by the likes of N.C. State’s Elissa Cunane, a preseason honorable mention All-American, or Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley, who was tabbed to the watch list for the Lisa Leslie Award. The Panthers will need someone who can fight for rebounds with Georgia Tech’s Lorela Cubaj, the conference’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year last season, and can score at the rim with Notre Dame’s Maddy Westbeld, last season’s ACC Rookie of the Year.
Pitt believes that player is going to be Rita Igbokwe, a 6-foot-4 junior.
Last season, Igbokwe played in all 19 of Pitt’s games and started 16 of them. She averaged 5.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per-game while leading the team in field goal percentage with a 50.6% mark. Igbokwe was the fifth-best shot-blocker in the ACC, statistically, and showed the potential to powerful in the paint for the Panthers.
But this season, her coaches and teammates are forecasting her to make a jump to the next level. They’re expecting her to be consistent, to anchor Pitt in the defense and rebounding departments, and to be mentioned among the top post players in the ACC.
“Rita’s growth this offseason – she’s going to be someone that people are going to notice,” Pitt head coach Lance White told Pittsburgh Sports Now. “And if she can continue to put things together, she’s a pro.”
A native of Jonesboro, Georgia, Igbokkwe was part of White’s first real recruiting class at Pitt, the same class that included Amber Brown and Dayshanette Harris.
Those two have owned highlights and grabbed headlines since they’ve been at Pitt. Harris made the ACC All-Freshman team in 2020, hit a game-winner over Notre Dame in the ACC tournament, and is the seventh-fastest Panther to score 500 points. Brown has started in each of the 50 games she’s played in at Pitt and has twice been named ACC Player of the Week.
While most folks focused their attention and fandom on Harris and Brown, Igbokwe was racking up stats and impressing too, just doing so in a less glamorous way. In her rookie season, she broke a 43-year-old school record by blocking 60 shots, the most ever in a single season by a Pitt freshman. She’s also the first Panther to lead the squad in blocks in back-to-back seasons since Pitt joined the ACC in 2013. She’s had some incredible individual performances too, like when she tallied seven points, 12 boards and three blocks in a narrow loss for Pitt at Wake Forest last season. According to HerHoopStats, Igbokwe has the second-best block percentage (8.4%) and the seventh-best rebounding percentage (16.6%) in the ACC last season.
And based on what White, Harris and Brown are saying, those numbers should all improve this season.
“Rita has grown so much. I think she knows her purpose,” Harris said. “And that’s important to being successful. She’s going to be a really big help.”
Added Brown: “Rita has gotten really better. She’s putting a lot of the pieces together. She’s getting it. She’s finishing around the rim, catching the ball well, improving her moves around the rim, rebounding really well. She looks really great.”
Igbokwe has shown flashes of being able to be a great post presence during her time at Pitt. Once, as a freshman, she had 18 rebounds, nine points and six blocks in a game against Ohio. That rebound total was the most by a Pitt freshman since 2005. And against Delaware last season, she notched a double-double – 11 points and 11 boards – in just 18 minutes of work.
For Igbokwe, the talent has always been there. The key for her will be bringing it often and consistently every night in a conference that had seven players named to the preseason watch lists for the annual honors given to the top power forwards and centers in the country – the McClain and the Leslie awards.
White believes that Igbokwe has the potential to eventually be mentioned among that group of players.
“She’s got a chance to be a really, really good player,” White said. “I’m really excited for her this season, for her to be able to show that.”