Don't look now most people probably won't but the University of Pittsburgh women's basketball program is showing a pulse. In fact, they just made their way to the Final Four of the WNIT.
I know what you're thinking: Women's sports and the NIT tournament equals this being the page of the City Paper most likely to be used to clean up after your pets. But hear me out.
OK, so Pitt competed in the redheaded stepchild National Invitational Tournament, rather than the more prestigious NCAA tourney. But can anybody remember the last time the Pitt women won anything? (I'll give you a clue: When they last won the Big East, we didn't have any ironic distance from Soft Cell's "Tainted Love.") So, while the program still labors behind perennial Big East powerhouses like UConn and Rutgers, the progress that third-year coach Agnus Berenato has made is remarkable.
Pitt was DOA until Berenato arrived; this season, it could easily have been an NCAA Tournament selection. Instead, the committee chose the University of South Florida Lady Bulls (seriously) a team that Pitt beat twice, and that has an identical in-conference record. Go figure.
As for the fact that this is women's hoops rather than men's well, they set, they box out, they use back-door cuts, they play defense. What's not to like? In many ways, this is basketball the way it's supposed to be played.
Nobody expected dunking in 1891, after all, when Jim Naismith invented the game. And as Jason Whitlock of ESPN.com argued in a recent column about women's basketball, the slam-dunk has ruined the men's game. Yet any time women athletes go head-to-head against men, they will always lose in terms of ratings or attendance. When Tennessee's Candace Parker "faux" dunked a few weeks ago, it was all over the highlight reels. Why? Parker's a terrific player, but she's made 100 better plays this year that weren't shown. I guess it's not as much fun watching somebody draw in defenses to dish the ball out to her teammates.
Call it the "sound-bytization" of sports coverage: The coming of the dunk, combined with 24-hour sports coverage, leads to the inevitable highlight bits. To hell with teamwork and coaching adjustments; we're too impatient to watch an offense develop over 20 or 30 seconds. Just jam, baby.
Still, I'm guessing that if Naismith were here today, he'd rather watch UNC's Ivory Latta than Kobe Bryant. And as for this Pitt team Berenato has put together, they've got such a strong core of talent that all signs point up for the 2006-2007 season.
The Lady Panthers are lead by red-shirt junior, Mallorie Winn, who transferred from Georgia Tech to follow her coach to Pittsburgh. She's a demon on the court, the engine that drives the machine. She rarely sits for more than a four minutes a game, she's got mad ball-handling skills and distributes the ball so well it would make Norman Dale giddy. She can also shoot when she needs to, averaging 15 points per game.
Winn will be joined by many returning teammates, most notably sophomore and All Big East player Marcedes Walker, a dominant inside presence. When Walker works the post, it all opens up for the Lady Panthers: This year, she's averaged 17.4 points per game and 9.6 rebounds.
Also on this year's team are two very talented guards, both freshmen: Xenia Stewart and leaping savant Shavonte Zellous, who brings as much energy as a Starbucks double-shot.
As much progress as the program made this year, the players were unnerved in their WNIT Final Four game at Marquette. The crowd got to them, they pressed and they got down early. Chalk it up to youth and inexperience. One suspects, however, that their disappointing loss is the kind of thing this young team will learn from. With all their players returning except senior Cheron Taylor, what worked for them all year should work even better next season.
As Berenato was quoted saying after the game, "I feel like these ladies have learned and we'll be back next season." And for this year, the job Berenato (this year's female Dapper Dan recipient) and the team have done has been complete success. One small step for Marcedes Walker, one giant leap for women's basketball in Pittsburgh.