For the first time in nearly three years, the Pitt women’s basketball team has a chance to build a winning streak, while its leader looks to continue lighting up the court.
Prior to its 79-75 win Sunday against Virginia, the team had not won a regular-season conference game since Feb. 15, 2011. And for the first time since that mid-February victory almost three years ago, the Panthers will shoot for back-to-back conference wins when they travel to Clemson for a Sunday-afternoon battle.
The struggles Pitt has witnessed in conference play over the past few seasons have been well documented, but the potential to start a conference win streak is currently greater than it may be for the Panthers all season long.
Pitt tips off at Littlejohn Coliseum at 2 p.m. to face a Tigers team that has had similar struggles in conference play in recent years.
The Tigers have compiled only 10 conference wins since the beginning of the 2010-2011 season, with losses this season in both of two conference games — one against No. 2 Notre Dame and, most recently, a lopsided 89-68 defeat at the hands of Georgia Tech.
Despite the Tigers’ struggles, Pitt head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio said Clemson is a dynamic team.
“Watching them on film, they are extremely athletic and quick,” McConnell-Serio said. “We want to be able to defend and slow them down and make them execute in the half court. They are very balanced. They don’t have one player that is scoring a ton of points. You have to respect everyone.”
Clemson has five scorers who average more than eight points per game, led by junior guard Nikki Dixon (11.3 points per game). Dixon is coming off a career-high 26 point performance against Georgia Tech in the Tigers’ last game.
Junior guard Brianna Kiesel explained that building a win streak could provide a huge boost to the team.
“I really do think getting on a win streak and having that confidence on a high is going to help us,” Kiesel said. “When we play confident, we look confident and we play well. Coach [McConnell-Serio] really helps us with that and always comes in and gives us the confidence to go out and play well.”
But the ACC schedule allows no time for basking in limited spurts of success, since Pitt hosts No. 2 Notre Dame and Syracuse (receiving votes in national polls), then travels to No. 3 Duke in its next three games.
Certainly beating any one of those highly-touted opponents could mark a signature win in year one of the McConnell-Serio era. If the coach can keep receiving star performances from her best players, namely Kiesel, the Panthers’ reputation might rise around the league.
But the Panthers aren’t at that point just yet, according to their head coach.
“We have seen so many signs of progress with our team, and the more success you have, the more confident you are,” McConnell-Serio said. “It would be a huge win for us, especially another big one on the road. They are hungry and are looking for a first conference win. We have a lot of respect to still earn in this league.”
Kiesel shined in Pitt’s win over Virginia, posting a game-high 26 points and seven assists. That performance came on the heels of a 20-point, seven-assist effort in the Panthers’ ACC home opener versus Florida State.
Her two standout performances were recognized in the ACC and on a national scale.
Kiesel was awarded ACC Player of the Week honors and was named the National Player of the Week by the United States Basketball Writers Association.
“These individual accolades are nice, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without the team,” Kiesel said. “We had two really good showings against Florida State and Virginia. I think we all played really hard and with a lot of confidence, and it was really big for us to get that first conference win.”
Kiesel is the first player in program history to receive the national honor from the basketball writers association.
A repeat effort from Pitt’s starting five may be needed Sunday against a Tigers squad that has held opponents to a collective 38.6 field goal percentage. Kiesel, combined with senior forward Asia Logan, redshirt senior guard Ashlee Anderson, redshirt sophomore Loliya Briggs and senior guard Marquel Davis, scored 74 of Pitt’s 79 points against Virginia.
“We are going to focus on the good things that we do,” Kiesel said on the gameplan for Sunday. “Really work on us and focus on getting into our offense. Just come in with that mindset that we worked really hard, and let all that work pay off in the games.”