In NCAA Tournament, Pitt women’s basketball embraces underdog status |
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Pitt's Brianna Kiesel scores past North Carolina's Allisha Gray in the first half Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015, at Petersen Events Center.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Pitt women’s basketball team is an underdog entering its NCAA Tournament first-round game Saturday against Chattanooga.

That’s how coach Suzie McConnell-Serio prefers it.

The Panthers have found a comfort zone this season when being counted out. When they were overwhelming favorites against 15th-seeded Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament, it did not end well.

McConnell-Serio said everyone in the locker room knew one win in that tournament likely would guarantee a ticket to this tournament. The Panthers responded with perhaps their worst game of the season and lost 51-45, setting up one long week and a half leading to Selection Monday.

Now they’re the No. 10 seed facing No. 7 Chattanooga, and the Panthers feel like they’re back in their sweet spot.

“We thrive on being an underdog and people underestimating us, so we will look at that as an opportunity and a challenge,” McConnell-Serio said.

Chattanooga has not lost since Dec. 1, when it dropped a 57-51 decision at Arkansas State. Its winning streak sits at 25 games.

Asked whether she remembers what it feels like to lose, Mocs senior guard Ka’Vonne Towns said: “Not really. We don’t want to start knowing what it feels like.”

It isn’t just other mid-major teams Chattanooga has faced and beaten. The Mocs played four top-25 teams, and included among their 29 wins are victories against No. 4 Tennessee and No. 7 Stanford, both at home.

Chattanooga is ranked No. 17. They’re playing 113 miles from home. They are making their 13th appearance in the tournament and seventh in the past nine years.But in that span, they have won only one game, upsetting Rutgers as a No. 10 seed in 2004.

Pitt and Chattanooga never have played. Panthers point guard Brianna Kiesel said the Mocs are unlike any team they have faced this season.

“They play really well together, and they also play a low-possession game. So we just need to play our game and try to speed them up a little bit,” Kiesel said. “I think that’s going to be our biggest challenge.”

The Mocs rank second in the nation behind only Connecticut for fewest points allowed (50.4 per game) and are first in fewest personal fouls per game (11.1).

“(Chattanooga) is very deliberate, very patient,” McConnell-Serio said. “They run their sets. They execute on ball screens very well. We have to find ways to disrupt that so we can create offense off our defense.”

If Pitt is enjoying its reclaimed underdog status, it also is enjoying its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2009. McConnell-Serio said her team is trying to deflect some of the hoopla because the players prefer things simple and routine, but she said it also is important to enjoy the moment.

“Everything is magnified when you get to the NCAA Tournament,” McConnell-Serio said. “We go on a 30-seat charter when we travel throughout the season, and now we have a chartered Southwest flight with the band and the cheerleaders and additional administrators, and our party just grew. You know immediately that this is bigger than the regular season, and it’s more special for each and every one of us. It’s the NCAA Tournament, and there’s nothing better. It’s what you play all year for.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at [email protected] or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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