Pitt head coach Lance White and his team went to work almost immediately after the offseason to revamp his team and improve going into next season.
After a promising 8-2 start to the 2021-22 season, ACC play hurt the Panthers in the long run, as they only won two games and lost their final 10 in a row. It was a disappointing end to White’s fourth season at the helm and he and his staff knew that as well. While the team improved in many areas, particularly on defense, offensive woes hurt the team at critical moments. This turned games that could’ve gone either way and ended up going to Pitt’s opponent most often.
To fix those problems, White and his staff hit the recruiting trail and brought in four new players to their class of 2022, within a little more than a month’s time. This includes West Virginia decommits in guard Marley Washenitz and wing Avery “Ace” Strickland, as well in transfers in Ohio State rising junior forward Gabby Hutcherson and Maryland rising graduate guard Channise Lewis.
While getting four players in a short time frame is impressive, the most prized recruit of the 2022 class committed quite some time ago. ESPN HoopGurlz Class of 2022 recruit and McDonald’s All-American, Aislin Malcolm, committed to Pitt in December 2020. Malcolm, who is also a local recruit, coming out of Chartiers Valley High School, amassed 110 wins to just seven losses during her high school career. This also included a Pennsylvania state record 64 consecutive wins as well.
Pitt struggled offensively last season because they couldn’t rely on any one player to pull up from anywhere on the floor and make shots with consistency. This created an offense that relied heavily on driving to the rim to make shots and opposing ACC teams learned quickly how to stymy Pitt. This usually involved playing in a zone, opposed to man-to-man, and making it difficult for Pitt to score right at the basket.
For White, Malcolm was one of his first targets since arriving at Pitt in 2018. Watching her develop and grow as a player, White sees a phenomenal shooter and someone that can stretch the floor and create shots for her teammates.
“I think the thing with Aislin Malcolm too is that she is a phenomenal passer,” White said. “She’s so fundamental and I’m really excited to add her to our mix and it’s going to allow our players that we already have such space because she’s such a phenomenal shooter.”
For Washentiz and Strickland, it was a different story in that they each decommited from rival West Virginia within days of each other. Washenitz decommitted because there was no roster spot for her due to too many players staying on the team because of an extra year from COVID-19. Strickland soon followed but owing her decision mainly to WVU head coach Mike Carey retiring after 21 years.
White recruited Washenitz early on, but she committed to WVU in August 2020, preventing White from building a further relationship with her. White says that once she decommitted, he and his staff were ready to go with the offer and then Strickland’s soon followed.
“In the “Twitter” World and all of those things now is that anything becomes so instantaneous,” White said. “Once a kid, you find out that they’re opening it [recruiting] back up then you jump two feet in. If it’s a kid that you know fits your program and the character of your program and [Washentiz] obviously was one of those. Avery [Strickland], we jumped right in the middle of it. So, it was now selling our vision for the future of Pitt women’s basketball, and they latched onto that and really excited about them and the future of our program.”
White saw in both of them, much of what he saw in Malcolm, as they are both proven winners coming into Pitt. Washenitz led Fairmont High School to Class AAA state runners-up in consecutive seasons in West Virginia. Strickland led Farragut High School to their first ever state tournament appearance and their first state championship appearance, finishing as runners-up in Class 4A in Tennessee.
They also won personal accolades for their play as well. Washentiz earned West Virginia Player of the Year honors in back-to-back seasons, while Strickland earned the title of Tennessee high school sports Player of the year in 2021.
Washenitz and Strickland supported each other throughout the recruiting process and their relationship, along with Malcolm is a reason that White is so excited for the upcoming season.
“They were good friends and formed a great connection whenever they were going through their recruiting process,” White said. “So whenever we got them all here and just really watched their dynamics with Aislin [Malcolm], it was really fun to see those kids and that could be your freshman class. Really what they bring. I think they compliment each other extremely well, but for us as coaches, it puts three really good shooters on the floor.”
While taking two players away from a rival usually stokes either bragging rights or complaints from both sides, Pitt last played WVU in 2018, White’s first year as head coach. With a new coaching staff in Morgantown, White says that there is a possibility of the Backyard Brawl returning.
“I think so, White said. “I think we can put that on and our coaching staffs will see if we can get together and find a chance to do that. I think that would be fun to renew that and add that to what we are doing.”
Pitt bolstered their roster by bringing in both transfers, Hutcherson and Lewis within a week of each other.
Hutcherson started off as a 5-star recruit at Ohio State, but didn’t see much of the court her two seasons in Columbus. White started to watch her back when he coached at Florida State as an assistant and tried to get her to Pitt, but she chose to stay home.
White loves the 6-foot-2 forward’s length, her athleticism and her ability to shoot from behind the arc. He believes that her versatility makes her a great player and that she can take that next step as a Panther.
“She’s my prototype forward that can just stretch defense, that can go attack, that can defend, White said. “I really believe she’s got a chance to be a great two-way player, one of the best in our league. I’m excited for her to jump in and really help us.”
Lewis came into Maryland as the No. 55 ranked recruit in her 2017 class by ESPN. She saw success her first two seasons, but injuries limited her in more recent seasons. White sees her as a true point guard that is experienced and directs her team’s offense with her passing and scoring.
“She’s a complete point guard and she sees the floor, she’s got high basketball IQ, can score on all three levels and she just has such a great feel for the game and it really will benefit our entire team,” White said. “She’s gonna hit people that are open in rhythm to shoot and she’s gonna be able to control the pace.”
Pitt currently has one open roster spot for next season, so there is still potential for a transfer to arrive. White believes that the team is finalized, but that you “never say never” if you find a player that can potentially help your team improve. He also is really excited for his current class of 2022 and is ready to go for next season.
“I still believe you go get the very best players you can and find a way to win,” White said. “So, I’m really excited about this group. I think we’ve added a lot of pieces that can really open the floor up. They’re great kids and I’m really excited.”