In a pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, Pitt’s women’s basketball team went 5-14 overall and 3-12 in ACC play. Lance White’s third year at the helm of the team was a tough one.
But, if you look beyond the record, you can find a few silver linings. Such as:
- Pitt was tied with Virginia Tech going into the fourth quarter in a road contest.
- Five of Pitt’s losses were by two possessions or less. Three of those defeats came against teams that went to the NCAA tournament.
- Pitt was third in the ACC in blocked shots, with 4.58 per-game.
- The Panthers led the ACC, and were 12th in the nation, in offensive rebounds per-game with 15.7.
- Pitt was sixth in the ACC in rebounding margin, with a +1.3 mark.
- And they were 29th in the country in total rebounds per-game with 41.4.
At the ACC Tip-Off event in Charlotte last month, White was particularly hopeful of two things: That, with experience, some of those loses would become wins. And that Pitt’s expertise in grabbing missed shots off the rim and glass would carry over into this season.
“I think we can rebound with most teams in the conference,” White said. “And now, defensively, I think we’ll be long and athletic. So, I think that’s an area where we can compete with anyone. Those two areas – defense and rebounding… You’re always questioning those first few years, ‘Can we do this?’ Now we know what we can do at this level.”
Pitt had five players last year who averaged more than four rebounds per-game in Rita Igbokwe (6.2), Amber Brown (6.1), Cynthia Ezeja (5.9), Liatu King (4.6) and Dayshanette Harris (4.3). And each of them are back.
Igbokwe and Brown are entering their third season together as front court mates. While Brown appears undersized for her position at just 6-feet tall, she makes up for it with her speed, IQ and tenacity. Brown isn’t intimidated by towering centers, and she’s quick enough to guard pesky snipers along the perimeter too.
“We gel pretty well together, especially on defense,” Brown said of her chemistry with Igbokwe. “I think we just got to keep going. Not getting content with ourselves and just reaching a new level. That’s kind of our thing – leveling up.”
Brown told Pittsburgh Sports Now that she lost 23 pounds this offseason and worked tirelessly in three areas: defense, rebounding and her jumper. That’s good news, considering how much Pitt relies on her stellar play. Since Pitt joined the ACC, she has logged more minutes through 50 games than any other Panther. She’s also the second-fastest Panther to grab 300 rebounds since Pitt joined the ACC in 2013, doing so in just 39 contests.
“We got some great post players in the ACC. If you can rebound – and defend most people in this conference – that’s a great thing. You give yourself a chance,” Brown said. “Our team kind of harps on defense. We’re a defensive team. And we take pride in rebounding. Me and Rita, that’s our thing.”
Added Harris: “I think those three put together are really going to do some damage.”
In addition to Igbokwe and Brown, the third player Harris speaks of is Mary Dunn, who comes to Pitt via transfer from Youngstown State.
A 6-foot-3 native of Washington, Pennsylvania, Dunn is entering her sixth season of college basketball. Last season, she was named to the All-Horizon League Second Team after placing second in the conference in shooting percentage with a 51.6% clip, while also averaging 16.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per-game. According to HerHoopStats, Dunn was sixth in her conference last season in PER (28.3), ninth in points per-play (0.99), and fifth in field goals made with 116.
Dunn is a proven scorer and rebounder at the Division I level and often imposed her will on the Horizon League. She was named the conference’s Freshman of the Year back in 2017, and its Sixth Player of the Year in 2019. At Pitt, she provides experience, depth, rebounding, rim protection and the ability to score at close range. She’s just another weapon that the Panthers have inside.
“At that level, she was really dominant,” White said of Dunn. “And I think in the post position, she can really help us. She can shoot the three and can battle down low. She gives us some size that we needed.”
Pitt has just one freshman on its roster this season in Maliyah Johnson, a guard from Columbus, Ohio. And the Panthers carry nine players who are entering at least their third season of college basketball. That’s’ a stark contrast from the 2019-20 season – when White was bringing in his first recruiting class – where Pitt carried five freshman and a single senior.
In this sport, experience and chemistry matters. And its something Pitt had to build over time.
So, if you ask White what the Panthers got better at over the offseason, it’s simply that. They’re older, they know each other a little bit better, and every player on the roster knows what ACC basketball is all about.
“You look at so many of those games that we were right in, and their teams had experienced guards and we didn’t. We were still sophomores and freshmen,” White said. “And so, now, that pay dividends. Now we’ve been in that situation. Now you know what to do, as opposed to getting in that situation and panicking.
“You can’t ever replicate experience. And finally, we have experience. So, that’s what these first couple years have been for, waiting for these kids to grow up and really understand what it takes to win in the ACC. Now, whenever you say something, they know what you’re talking about. Now, they have to go do it.”