Pitt Women: Victory could lead to NCAA tournament bid

Panthers rally for 21st win of the season

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The Pitt women's basketball team had a ceremony to honor its seniors yesterday before the final home game.

But the result of the game -- Pitt rallied from a seven-point halftime deficit to defeat DePaul, 87-80, before a crowd of 2,891 at the Petersen Events Center -- almost assuredly means the Panthers will play at least one more game this season at home.

Pitt will have to wait a couple weeks until it receives an official invitation from the NCAA tournament selection committee.

The Petersen Events Center will serve as one of the eight sites for the NCAA tournament's first- and second-round games. The Panthers, as are all eight of the host schools, are guaranteed to play on their home court if they make the women's field of 64.

Pitt coach Agnus Berenato believes the win against the Blue Demons has pushed the Panthers (21-7, 9-6 Big East) off the bubble and into the tournament.

"You never know how these things play out," said a jubilant Berenato. "But 21 wins is nice and given that we do now have 21 wins, we have guaranteed a winning Big East record and with our RPI where it is and our strength of schedule, I just feel very good about our chances.

"We needed a win like this late in the year over a team that annually goes to the NCAA tournament to give us that little extra boost."

DePaul coach Doug Bruno, whose Blue Demons (17-11, 7-8) are still fighting to make a case for an NCAA berth, said he has been around for a lot of years and has seen a lot of NCAA tournament teams, and has no doubt that the Panthers are among the top 64 in the country.

"I think Pitt has the talent to be a force in the Big East tournament," Bruno said. "And they are definitely a team that has earned their way into the NCAA tournament, I don't think there is any doubt about that."

The win, which snapped Pitt's two-game losing skid, was also historical in that the Panthers set a school record for regular-season victories and need only one more to tie the most wins in a season by a Pitt women's team.

It is also the first time the Panthers, who have never received an NCAA tournament bid, have had a winning conference record in consecutive seasons since 1992-93 and 1993-94.

The win didn't come easy as the Panthers struggled to stop the Blue Demons fast-paced offense in the first half and found themselves trailing at halftime, 47-40. DePaul shot 60 percent from the field in the half (18 for 30) and leading scorer Allie Quigley had 15 points.

Berenato made some defensive adjustments at the half and the Panthers came out with a press that was designed to slow down the Blue Demons and force them to walk the ball up the court and set up in a half-court offense. The move worked and Pitt was able to change the pace of the game. It then rode the hot hand of leading scorers Marcedes Walker and Shavonte Zellous to what could easily be Pitt's most important victory.

The effectiveness of the Panthers' defensive switch was evident in the first six minutes of the second half. They went on a 14-2 run to take a 54-49 lead with 14:09 to play. And though Quigley finished with 20 points, only five came after the half and DePaul finished with just 12 fastbreak points, none in the second half.

Meanwhile, Zellous, who finished with a game-high 25 points, scored 17 second-half points and Walker scored 11 of her 22 in the final 20 minutes.

Pitt also got three huge 3-pointers down the stretch from freshman Ashleigh Braxton, two of which came on consecutive possessions and helped Pitt turn a 64-63 deficit into a 69-66 lead with six minutes to play. DePaul got as close as three points one more time -- at 76-73 with 2:06 to play -- but Walker converted a three-point play to push the lead to 79-73 with 1:07 to play.

Rebecca Droke, Post-Gazette photos
Shavonte Zellous broke free for 25 points in Pitt's victory at the Petersen Events Center yesterday -- the Panthers' 21st of the season.
Click photo for larger image.

The tournament

What: Big East women's tournament.

When: Saturday-March 6.

Where: Hartford, Conn.

The skinny: With one game remaining, the Panthers are tied with Seton Hall for seventh place. However, they would lose a tiebreaker to the Pirates because of a 51-50 loss to them Jan. 27.

Marcedes Walker added 22 points in the win.
Click photo for larger image.


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