Panthers aim for improvement in Big East

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Last year, Pitt battled through its non-conference schedule for eight wins, only to fall apart once Big East play started and struggle through a winless conference season.

This season, the Panthers held a 9-4 record through non-conference play but dropped their Big East opener last Saturday at Seton Hall.

Despite the loss, Panthers coach Agnus Berenato can see noticeable differences between this season's team and last season's.

"Absolutely, positively," she said. "We've been down in several games then we came back and won those games."

The Panthers (9-5, 0-1 Big East) open their Big East home schedule at 6 p.m. today against Villanova (11-2, 2-0) at Petersen Events Center. Pitt has not played a home game since Dec. 20 and is looking for its first Big East win since 2011.

Sophomore guard Brianna Kiesel said despite some up-and-down results in the early part of the season, this year's team is a tight-knit group heading into conference play.

"Just the chemistry, our team chemistry, is a lot better," Kiesel said. "We're playing team defense, we're rebounding the ball a lot better. We're just playing well as a team."

The Panthers started 2013 on the right foot with a 55-54 win Jan 2 at Old Dominion. In the Big East opener, though, the Panthers lost to Seton Hall, 69-56. Berenato said the loss was a good lesson for her young team on what exactly it takes to be competitive in the Big East.

"You can see their youth because they had a great win against Old Dominion, but then they let their guard down against Seton Hall," she said. "I thought Seton Hall came out, threw the first punch, and that was it for us."

Kiesel agreed that the Big East is a step up from non-conference action.

"The Big East, it's very different," Kiesel said. "The speed is different, [the teams] are more aggressive. We've just got to shoot the ball a little bit better, play a little better defense."

Perimeter defense especially will be key for the Panthers today against Villanova, which averages 24.4 3-point shots per game, making 31 percent. The Wildcats are coming off an impressive 65-45 victory against DePaul.

"We know this is what they do," Berenato said. "We've been beaten by some teams that didn't shoot the 3, and then they came out and made 11 3s. That's odd. This is a 3-point shooting team, we know this team shoots 3s."

With a team as young as the Panthers -- Pitt has no seniors on the roster -- there's no substitute for experience. Most of the team went through the Big East gauntlet last year and knows what to expect. Now, they just need to parlay that experience into wins.

"It's Big East. You can say that, but it doesn't really matter," Berenato said. "Big East is Big East, and it's a different level."

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Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.


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