Five seniors want to spearhead turnaround for Pitt women’s basketball
All Cassidy Walsh wanted was a chance.
After three losing seasons in which she played a marginalized role on the Pitt women’s basketball team, Walsh was eager to prove her worth. She told new coach Lance White as much.
The Panthers’ other four seniors — Aysia Bugg, Danielle Garven, Kauai Bradley and Kalista Walters — sounded a similar refrain when White asked what they wanted out of their last season.
They wanted a chance. A fresh start.
Bugg, who redshirted last season, was a freshman on the Pitt team that won 20 games and went to the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15. The others came in on the heels of that success, bringing with them the expectation of carrying the momentum.
It didn’t work out that way. Pitt won just 10 ACC games over the next three seasons, bottoming out at 2-14 in the conference last season, which led to the firing of coach Suzie McConnell-Serio.
Enter White, a longtime assistant at Florida State stepping into a head-coaching role for the first time. His first order of business was to win over the seniors. He talked to them, collectively and individually, to uncover their motivation.
“They didn’t ask for this,” White said. “Here’s this new coach, saying new stuff, who didn’t recruit them. I told them, ‘I will judge you by what I see. I’m not going to judge you on the past.’
“I just had to have the reassurance from them. Do they want to put in the work to make us different?”
Seven months and eight games into his tenure, White is seeing a difference.
Pitt is 4-4 and enters Thursday’s game at Northwestern on a modest two-game winning streak. Both wins — over Arkansas and Tennessee State — came at a Thanksgiving weekend tournament in Nashville.
The seniors are making tangible contributions. Tops among them is Walsh. During her first three seasons, the Seton LaSalle graduate never averaged more than 12.4 minutes or 2.4 points. This season, she is averaging 11.0 points in 28.6 minutes and shooting 36.1 percent from 3-point range.
“She’s having to carry a huge load for us and just wants it so bad,” White said. “She’s the hardest worker on the floor.”
Said Walsh: “I think I’m just playing very smooth and very confident and just doing what I know how to do.”
Garven is just behind Walsh at 10.0 points per game. Walters is averaging 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds, and Bradley 3.6 points and 1.4 steals.
Bugg is the leading scorer (14.0) but was sidelined indefinitely two games ago by what the team called a “health issue.” Though the timetable for her return is unknown, she has seen enough to sense the difference White has made.
“He talks about what a privilege it is to coach us,” she said. “We felt like we could build a relationship and trust him. I think we do have a lot more enthusiasm and energy. It’s contagious.”
And it has bubbled over to the underclassmen, several of whom have assumed large roles. Sophomore center Cara Judkins, who averaged only 5.9 minutes over 13 appearances last season, has blossomed, leading the team in rebounding (4.4) and blocks (1.1). She had 14 points in the win over Tennessee State and had 13 rebounds in a win over Cincinnati.
Freshman Jahsyni Knight contributed six points and two steals to the win over Arkansas, a game played without Bugg and Norwin grad Alayna Gribble (injury), a junior who made 14 starts and averaged 7.7 points last season.
“It’s been so interesting to watch the progression of this team,” White said. “To see their excitement after that Arkansas game in Nashville. … Our kids latched it down and made enough plays to win that game.”
White said though the early returns have been positive, there remains a long road. But with the seniors going all in, he is hopeful the road won’t be quite as bumpy.
All they asked for was a chance. They got it, and they are taking full advantage.
“This is our (seniors) last go-around, and we wanted to make the best of it,” Walsh said. “I think it’s pretty special, honestly.”
Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at [email protected] or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.