Ron Cook: More magic to come for Pitt
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The official word came at 8:33 last night.
Pitt is in the NCAA women's basketball tournament for the first time in school history and will play James Madison at 9:30 p.m. Sunday at the Petersen Events Center.
It's nice to think that will be remembered as the one shining moment that changed the course of women's basketball in Pittsburgh forever.
It's no wonder that Pitt coach Agnus Berenato, when last seen, was fairly singing, "We're going to the dance! We've got to buy some dancin' shoes!"
This is huge for Pitt. When Berenato took over after the 2002-03 season, an NCAA tournament bid seemed almost impossible. The program was coming off seven losing seasons in eight years and attracting crowds that could be counted on little more than two hands. But after two more losing seasons, Pitt went 22-11 last season and went to the WNIT semifinals. This season, it cracked the Top 25 for four weeks at midseason, finished in a tie for fifth place in the Big East Conference and won a school-record 23 games, good enough for a No. 8 seed in the NCAAs.
Absolutely, this is big for Pitt.
But it has a chance to be even bigger for the sport in Pittsburgh.
This is a town that loves big events and the first two rounds of the women's tournament certainly qualify. As of yesterday, Pitt had sold about 3,300 full-ticket plans, which are good for the Sunday afternoon and evening sessions and for the evening session next Tuesday. Ticket sales figure to increase dramatically now that Pitt's opponent has been determined and the rest of the eight-team field here, highlighted by not one but two No. 1 seeds -- Tennessee and North Carolina -- is set.
At least that's Berenato's wish.
She believes if you give the women's game a chance once, you'll come back.
"I think you'll be amazed."
That's the way it worked for me in 2001, the previous time the women's tournament was in town. A crowd of 9,021 at Mellon Arena watched Louisiana Tech and Connecticut win in the East Region semifinals and another of 9,397 saw Connecticut beat Louisiana Tech in the region final to advance to the Final Four.
After enjoying the magic of Connecticut stars Sue Bird and the sublime Diana Taurasi that weekend, it was easy to understand why John Wooden once said he would rather watch a good women's game than a good men's game. The women's game is a purer game of basketball. It's not played above the rim. It's all about fundamentals -- passing and cutting, picking and screening. It's all about the lost art of shooting.
Taurasi was the best shooter -- male or female -- to play in Pittsburgh in 2001.
Unfortunately, women's basketball here wasn't able to capitalize on the momentum from those terrific tournament games. Pitt and Duquesne had lousy programs at the time. When you watched them play, it was like watching a different game. They were no Connecticut.
Pitt still isn't Connecticut -- not by a long shot -- but it slowly is closing the gap. It's not hard to imagine the Panthers beating James Madison despite having only eight healthy players, seven if you don't count star Marcedes Walker, who doesn't practice because of a foot problem. Beating Tennessee in the second round would be a real stretch for Pitt, but next season might be a different story. All of the top players will be back, including Walker, a Kodak/WBCA District I All-American, Shavonte Zellous, a first-team All-Big East selection, and Jania Sims, a Big East All-Freshmen pick. Pitt also hopes to get back Mallorie Winn, who is petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility after her knee was torn up in the preseason.
It's hard to imagine Berenato allowing Pitt to backslide. This is a woman who gets what she wants. How do you say this politely? She's forceful.
"I'm very greedy as a coach," Berenato said. "I'm not satisfied that we made the NCAA tournament. I want to win and get out of these first two rounds. It's almost an obsession with me ...
"As an educator, it's my job to not allow these players to settle. Sometimes, women have a tendency to settle as long as everyone is happy. They'd rather be liked than knock someone out of the starting lineup. Men aren't like that. Men are cutthroat. I'm cutthroat. I sometimes think I should have been a man."
Berenato is following much the same plan that Connecticut did when it hired Geno Auriemma as coach in 1985 after 10 losing seasons in 11 years. She and Pitt are targeting young families as their primary fan base because "we're good, healthy family entertainment." She's convinced the crowds will grow as Pitt recruits better players and has more success. She's not at all discouraged that it's a slow process -- Pitt had only two home crowds of more than 4,000 this season -- or that it's difficult even for the Pitt football program to sell tickets in a pro town.
"Listen, I have five kids and I couldn't afford to buy season tickets to see the pro teams or even our football team or our men's basketball team," Berenato said. "But I could buy a family season-ticket to our games for about $120."
Actually, $107 for a family of four.
But you get the idea.
"We have a chance to do big things here," Berenato said. "I want to win the national championship."
But so was Berenato's promise four years ago to get Pitt to the NCAA tournament.
Look how that turned out.
First Published March 13, 2007 12:00 am