Cook: Pitt has come a long way to gain this win

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Pitt showed just how far it has come as a women's basketball program last night. The journey seemed like a million miles when Pitt beat James Madison in a first-round NCAA tournament game at the Petersen Events Center. It was Pitt's first tournament win ever, which, you'll probably agree, is a very long time.

Tomorrow night, Pitt almost certainly will find out just how far it has to go to become an elite program. If things go as expected against No. 1 seed Tennessee, the journey will seem like another million miles. Tennessee toyed with Drake last night to win its 93rd tournament game.

But no matter what happens in that second-round matchup, these three days will be remembered as a defining moment for Pitt and women's hoops in Pittsburgh.

This 71-61 win against James Madison is one to build on.

Maybe one day, Pitt will be the overwhelming favorite that six-time national champion Tennessee is just about every time it steps on a court.

If Pitt does get to that point, it will look back on this season's team as the start of it all.

From the beginning -- OK, since two years ago, when Pitt learned it would be the host of the first two rounds of the NCAAs -- this Pitt team has been under extraordinary pressure. It was coming off a 13-15 season when the NCAA delivered this jewel. It had to, you know, win enough games to qualify for the tournament, something it had never done.

"To tell you the truth," said Pitt coach Angus Berenato, "I was hoping we'd get the tournament in 2008."

But darned if Pitt didn't meet the challenge.

It won a school-record 23 games.

That's why it wasn't such a surprise when it came up so big last night under the sport's brightest lights in front of its biggest crowd of the season at The Pete and a national ESPN television audience.

"We felt like we made history by getting into this tournament," Berenato said, "but we didn't want to be one and done. That's what we talked about before the game and at halftime. 'We can't be one and done.' That's not good enough."

Say this of the Pitt players:

They have taken on Berenato's personality.

She's hyper. They're hyper. She'll kick you in the gut to beat you. They'll knock you down to win and won't necessarily offer you a hand up.

Certainly, Pitt star Marcedes Walker isn't afraid to get physical.

Think Casey Hampton, just a little smaller.

"A big-time player," Berenato called her.

It only seemed appropriate that Walker was the best player on the court, hanging 20 points and 15 rebounds on James Madison. She was Berenato's first big-time recruit.

"She was the first one who said yes to us," Berenato said, "and she said yes at a time when we had six wins [in the 2003-04 season].

"We kept telling her, 'We're going to build the program around you.' She believed us. That's blind faith."

That commitment from Walker, more than this precious tournament win, is what Berenato will remember as the start of this magical ride for the Pitt program.

"But this is a continuation, definitely," she said.

"I think it's just amazing that we're in this tournament for the first time and won our first-round game."

Now, Pitt gets powerful Tennessee.

It's almost scary how good the Lady Volunteers are. They played a miserable first half against Drake and still led, 30-14. at halftime. They opened the second half with a 25-0 run and coasted to a 76-37 win.

But you know what?

The guess here is Berenato and her players will show up at The Pete tomorrow night.

"All along, I kept saying, 'I just want to win this game. I really want to win this game,' " Berenato said. "Now that we've won it, I'm saying, 'I really want to win Tuesday.' "

That's a little hard to imagine now.

It won't be nearly so hard to imagine down the road, thanks to this excitable coach and her excitable players.

To this history-making Pitt team.

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
James Madison's Jennifer Brown fouls Xenia Stewart in the second half of Pitt's first NCAA tournament win last night.
Click photo for larger image.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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