Upstart Pitt women go south

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Pitt women’s basketball coach Suzie McConnell-Serio doesn’t harbor any illusions of the Panthers going to Greensboro, N.C., for the ACC tournament this week and pulling off a string of miraculous upsets to steal the league’s automatic NCAA tournament bid.

Still, the ACC tournament, which will start for Pitt at 6:30 p.m. today against Wake Forest, does offer a chance for the Panthers to show how far they have come in McConnell-Serio’s first season.

“I think we are preparing for one game and not looking past that one game,” she said on a conference call with reporters this week. “We know where we are as a program; we’re looking to compete. Our goal is to win our first game.”

The Panthers (11-19, 3-13) are the 14th seed in the tournament, but it comes after being the bottom seed for their final two years in the Big East Conference. And the matchup against the Demon Deacons (14-15, 5-11) appears to give Pitt at least a chance to earn its first conference tournament win since 2011.

In the two teams’ only meeting Feb. 9 this season, the Panthers blew a 17-point halftime lead in a 74-70 loss.

McConnell-Serio noted, though, that both teams were without their point guards in that game. Wake Forest’s Chelsea Douglas, who averages 18.5 points, was out due to an injury, as was Pitt’s Brianna Kiesel.

If the Panthers have a chance of doing anything special this week, it likely will be on the back of Kiesel, who averages a team-high 16.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.

She also bounced back from a midseason slump with a strong regular-season finale at Miami, where she had 19 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists. The Panthers lost, 67-54, but McConnell-Serio pointed to that, as well as a 79-68 loss against No. 13 North Carolina State, as evidence that they are improving.

“Right now we feel like we’ve done some good things of late, the way we competed with N.C. State, the way we competed at Miami,” McConnell-Serio said. “We’re feeling a little bit better about our team going into the tournament knowing anything can happen in March.”

This league tournament will be a new experience for McConnell-Serio, coaching her first year at Pitt after coming over from Duquesne, and the Panthers, wrapping up their first year as ACC members.

The success of the trip will come down to what happens on the court, but McConnell-Serio said she is excited about the Greensboro experience.

‘We’ve heard nothing but great things about it,” she said. “We are so excited to be a part of it, having been down there for media day, people have come here to visit Pitt from Greensboro. We are very excited for the atmosphere.”

If the Panthers do find a way to beat Wake Forest, it would set up a date with North Carolina in the second round. That would be a significantly taller task, as Pitt lost to the Tar Heels, 86-50, earlier this season.

“We feel like we’ve been a work in progress,” McConnell-Serio said. “We’re taking steps with the teams that are in this conference, but it’s going to take some time.”

Sam Werner: and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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