Ask Brianna Kiesel what the biggest difference about her and the rest of the Pitt women’s basketball team is this season, and one word peppers all her responses.
Confidence in herself, confidence in her teammates and confidence in her coach.
That newfound sense of self-assurance was on full display as the Panthers made their Atlantic Coast Conference basketball debut.
Kiesel, a junior point guard, averaged 23 points and seven assists in games against Florida State on Thursday and Virginia on Sunday. For that, she was named the ACC player of the week and the United States Basketball Writers Association national player of the week.
For Kiesel, though, the sweetest accolade was chalking up the Panthers’ first ACC win Sunday. The 79-75 victory snapped a 37-game conference losing streak that spanned parts of four seasons and two leagues.
“It was a long time coming,” Kiesel said. “That got us fired up.
“It really felt like the monkey was off our back.”
While first-year head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio said the focus is always on the here and now, she felt the relief in the locker room after the win against Virginia.
“We try to talk about just putting the past in the past,” she said.
“That’s behind them. But, obviously, for our players, that’s something that people talk about all the time.”
Now, maybe more people will start talking about McConnell-Serio’s point guard, who is averaging a team-high 17.4 points and 4.5 assists per game.
McConnell-Serio, a former point guard, said her biggest goal with Kiesel heading into this season was to diversify her offensive game. Kiesel always had been a scorer, averaging 14.9 points per game last year, but she has added some range to her shot this year.
Instead of sagging down or going under screens, McConnell-Serio wants teams to respect Kiesel’s 3-point shot.
It’s still a bit of a work in progress (she is shooting 25.6 percent on 3-point attempts this season) but made 3 of 9 in the two ACC games.
“We don’t want her to be predictable,” McConnell-Serio said.
“She wants to be the complete point guard.”
Kiesel is quick to point out that she still needs to cut down on her turnovers — she had 13 combined in Pitt’s first two ACC games — but McConnell-Serio also praised her ability to see the whole floor and run the correct offensive sets.
Kiesel’s 4.5 assists per game this year are an improvement over the 3.0 she averaged her freshman and junior years.
“She’s a difference-maker for us on the floor in every aspect,” McConnell-Serio said. “It’s not just that she’s a scorer, because, when teams are now trying to trap her and take her out of the equation, she’s finding people. She has great speed and quickness to be able to do that.”
That development will have to continue as the Panthers soldier through ACC play. They travel to Clemson Sunday, then welcome No. 2 Notre Dame to the Petersen Events Center Jan. 16.
McConnell-Serio reminded her players after the Virginia game that their work wasn’t done just because the conference losing streak was.
“We hope that this is one [win] of many that we’re able to come away with, but we know it’s going to be tough,” she said. “We haven’t earned the respect of the teams in this league yet.
“We were obviously picked to finish last in the conference and we’re just going to have to continue to earn that respect by what we do on the floor.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.