CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Since Lance White was hired to take over the Pitt women’s basketball program, he’s been searching for a true bonafide point guard. A player comfortable running the offense, handling the ball, making sound decisions and putting her teammates in the best position to succeed.
Aysia Bugg could’ve been that player during White’s first two seasons, but she battled various injuries and health issues. Dayshanette Harris has been forced to play that role often during her three past seasons at Pitt, but she and White will both say that she’s better playing more off the ball. White thought that Jayla Everett – a transfer from New Mexico – could fill that void, but she never fully embraced the role of being a distributor over the course of two years and was dismissed from the team before last season ended.
“I’ve always believed that one of major needs was having a point guard who understood what a point guard did and does,” White told Pittsburgh Sports Now at the ACC Tip-Off in Charlotte.
Entering his fifth season, White thinks he’s found the answer – but it’s a gamble.
This offseason, White convinced Channise Lewis to join his team at Pitt. And in 2018 or 2019, this would’ve been a massive pickup for the Panthers. Now, in 2022, Lewis transferring from Maryland to Pitt was hardly noticed. Saying the move flew under the radar would be a massive understatement. But if Lewis remains healthy and plays up to her potential, she could help White’s program turn the corner.
“Channise has the basketball IQ. Her basketball mind is just crazy, off the charts,” White said. “She’s a proven winner; everywhere from high school to AAU to what she did at Maryland. She’s somebody that, in that position, we need her to control the game. And you know, that was our biggest deficiency.”
Let’s go back to 2017.
Back then, White was still an assistant at Florida State under Sue Semrau. And Lewis was a 5-foot-8 prospect out of the Miami Country Day School in south Florida. White was aggressive in his pursuit of Lewis, determined to make her a Seminole, but she opted to go to Maryland to join Brenda Frese’s storied program instead. ESPN tabbed Lewis as a four-star prospect and ranked her as the 55th best player in her class, ahead of players like LSU’s Khayla Pointer, N.C. State’s Kai Crutchfield and Northwestern’s Lindsey Pulliam. The future seemed bright for Lewis.
At Maryland, she made an impact right away for the Terps. As a freshman in the 2017-18 season, Lewis started in 32 of 34 games and led the Terps in assists with 4.7 per-game while shooting 39.5% from 3-point land. Maryland advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
As a sophomore – despite starting less often – Lewis was even better statistically. Her 5.4 assists per-game were 31st best in the country and third in the Big Ten, and her assist-turnover ratio of 2.80 was 17th best nationally and led the conference. She also averaged 4.2 points and 2.4 rebounds per-game as Maryland won the Big Ten regular season title and again made the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
And then Lewis’ promising career as a true floor general was derailed. She sat out what would’ve been her junior season after tearing her meniscus in October 2019.
Lewis worked hard to get back the next season, in 2020-21, but played just nine games before tearing her ACL.
Last season, she didn’t play at all. On Feb. 2, she said in a message on Instagram addressed to Terps fans that she was “taking a step back” to “focus” on her “mental and physical health.” She remained with the team, cheering Maryland on from the sidelines and offering advice and support to her teammates, but her playing days in College Park were over. Lewis was honored by Frese and the team on senior day and graduated with a degree in sociology.
But she still felt a calling to play basketball. And she still had eligibility left – two years, actually.
“That’s what happens when you’re injured for two years. And COVID,” says Lewis, who is 24 and has heard plenty of old folks’ jokes from her new teammates.
Lewis put her name in the transfer portal last spring, and it wasn’t long before she got a call from Lance White – that FSU assistant that had recruited her five years ago was now the head coach at Pitt.
“I was just looking for a fresh start,” Lewis said. “I knew Lance before even going to college. So, just knowing that he knew my game before my past injuries, I trusted that he would put me in the right position to succeed and Pittsburgh was the place. On my visit, the players opened their arms. And the campus itself is quite different from Maryland. I was looking for a new start and Pitt was the place for me.”
White has known Lewis since she was in the seventh grade. When it was clear that she wanted to come to Pitt, he didn’t hesitate in making that happen.
“I know her history,” White said. “When she said she was going to be in a position to bounce back, I had no reservations at all. I want to really put the ball in her hands and let her work.”
Dayshanette Harris is one of the Pitt players who likes to poke a little fun at Lewis for her age. She joked with one reporter that Lewis was 40 year old.
But Harris has built chemistry with Lewis quickly, and she’s excited to share a backcourt with her in arenas around the ACC. It’s been Harris who has led the Panthers in assists in each of the past three seasons.
“Now, (Harris) can get out and run and be athletic and go score the ball. I think (Lewis) immediately changes our team,” White said. “And you know, and I think for three years, Day had always assumed that position, and I think this really frees her up to go and be what she needs to be.”
Like White, Harris figures that the presence of Lewis will take playmaking pressure off of her and allow her to be a more effective scorer.
“We’re going to be good,” Harris said. “She’s got the brains. I can shoot it a little bit, and she knows where to find me.”
After chuckling some, Lewis says, “I would definitely agree.”
From practicing with Pitt – on campus and an offseason trip abroad to Italy – and looking at other ACC opponents on film, the difference that sticks out to Lewis is the pace of play in this league, compared to the Big Ten.
“The ACC is a lot of ‘get up and go.’ That’s one thing I have to adjust, just keeping the tempo up,” Lewis said. “Besides that, not really much of a difference. I’m still a point guard, and the point guard has one job – make the right decisions… I bring my knowledge here.”
Lewis hasn’t had any setbacks since making the decision to step away from playing at Maryland this past February.
“I’m feeling very good, very strong. These legs are definitely holding up,” Lewis said. “My body is feeling great, and I feel very healthy right now.”
That’s good news for the Panthers, who are aiming for their first winning season since 2015.