Pitt Women: Panthers hold off stubborn Zags to advance to Sweet Sixteen
Pitt's Shavonte Zellous celebrates after the 65-60 win over Gonzaga in their second-round women's NCAA college basketball tournament game on Monday night.
Pitt's Shavonte Zellous, left, and Gonzaga's Janelle Bekkering fight for a loose ball in the first half last night in Seattle.
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SEATTLE -- Pitt coach Agnus Berenato has often said her senior guards Shavonte Zellous and Xenia Stewart are backbone of the Panthers' recent success and began the revival of the program. The two have been starters since their first season, have led the team to the postseason every year and have been in the lineup for 95 wins over the past four years.
There may have never been a better example of their leadership, will to win and ability to carry the Panthers to heights that most people never imagined than what took place in the final minutes of Pitt's heartstopping, 65-60, win against Gonzaga in an NCAA women's tournament second-round game last night at Bank of America Arena.
The Panthers (25-7), the No. 4 seed, were reeling, trailing by three points and looking for answers and facing the very real possibility of being upset by the 12th-seeded Zags, who had the benefit of a very friendly crowd. But that's when Berenato put the game in the hands of her two outstanding seniors.
And as they usually have over the past four years, Stewart and Zellous came through in a big way and made the plays the Panthers needed down the stretch and led the team into the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season.
"At the [four-minute] media timeout I told the players that it takes courage to be a champion and cowards run and hide when the going gets tough," Berenato said. "The other players listened to it, but you could see Xenia and Shavonte were all about that and it pumped them up, and they went back onto the court with the attitude that they would not let us lose this game.
"And they played with great courage -- the courage to take those big shots down the stretch, the courage to sneak out and get a steal knowing if you don't get it is an open shot -- they played like champions, they were not ready for their career and our season to end."
Stewart, who had 12 points and three assists, said simply, "We weren't going to let anyone take this away from us."
And Zellous, who was saddled with foul trouble throughout most of the first half and struggled shooting, finished with 24 points and seven rebounds.
But the two, as Berenato said, were at their best when the game was on the line.
The Panthers and Zags played a hard-fought, physical battle and neither team could get separation as there were 14 ties and 16 lead changes.
But when Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot made a layup with 3:50 to play, it gave the Zags a 54-51 lead, and at that point the Panthers desperately needed a basket from someone as they had gone nearly four minutes without scoring.
Not surprisingly, it was Zellous who stepped up and hit a 3-pointer from the corner to tie the score. Then, after Vivian Frieson gave the Zags a 56-54 lead with a jumper, Stewart hit a 3-pointer to give the Panthers a one-point lead.
Pitt would trail one more time, when Frieson made another jumper to give the Zags a 58-57 advantage with 2:25 to play.
But Zellous made a layup to put Pitt up, 59-58, with 1:46 to play and then Stewart got a big steal and pushed the ball forward to Zellous, who scored again to put the Panthers up, 61-58, with 49 seconds to play.
From there, Zellous and Stewart each hit two free throws to ice the game -- and Stewart grabbed the game-clinching rebound on a missed 3-point attempt by Janelle Bekkering.
"I think we all had ownership in this game," Zellous said. "I know me and Xenia being the seniors take it on our shoulders to be the leaders, but everyone came to play and to do their job and we pulled through."
The Panthers also got a great second-half performance out of reserve center Chelsea Cole, who only scored two points but was a dominant force on the defensive end as she had six rebounds and blocked five shots.
Freshman Pepper Wilson also added 10 points and seven rebounds, and Sophronia Sallard added three big steals.
Pitt did struggle, however, to contain Vandersloot, who scored 18 points and had seven assists. But Berenato switched to a 3-2 zone -- a defense the Panthers never use -- in order to slow her down, and it helped in the game's closing moments.
Pitt will next play the winner of a game tonight between No. 1 seed Oklahoma (29-4) and No. 8 seed Georgia Tech (22-9) Sunday in Oklahoma City.
Gonzaga finished 27-7.
First Published March 24, 2009 12:03 am