Pat Higgins | Asst. Sports Editor
Under former head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio, the women’s basketball program reached new heights last season.
They competed night after night in a difficult non-conference schedule that featured nationally recognized programs including North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia and Pitt to mention a few. They tied a school record with 24 wins and finished with the best single-season winning percentage in program history (.774). They notched an 11-3 record in Atlantic 10 play – those 11 conference wins are also a program record. They received votes in the AP Poll seven times, ripped off a 10-game winning streak and narrowly missed an NCAA Tournament berth after losing a highly competitive game to St. Joseph’s in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament in Philadelphia.
Just weeks after the team advanced in the NIT and ultimately fell to Bowling Green in the second round in late March, McConnell-Serio accepted the same job down Forbes Avenue on April 12 as head coach of Pitt’s women’s team, one of the ACC’s newest additions this season.
For nearly a month, a team that built an impressive tournament list behind its outstanding defense and chemistry had no coach, until athletic director Greg Amodio announced that assistant coach Dan Burt would take over later in April.
The internal hiring has made the transition relatively seamless. Second team all Atlantic 10 forward Orsi Szeci admitted the process was an emotional one, but six months later, the team has put the McConell-Serio saga in the rear view mirror.
“I think that because of what we went through with the transition, it has brought us together,” said senior guard Reagan Moore. “Because for probably a month we had no coach, so we had to hold each other accountable.”
After the tight-knit group he recruited gave him the nod of confidence in the offseason, Burt said he welcomes the challenge to take the next step forward this year at media day.
“Our expectations are the NCAA Tournament. Period.”
Though they lost Vanessa Abel, Jocelyn Floyd and Ahjah Hall to graduation, the core of a roster that competed in every game it played last year remains intact behind a strong lineup featuring seniors Wumi Agunbiade, Szeci, Moore and sophomore point guard April Robinson.
Agunbiade and Szeci, the two best players in the conference according to Burt, will provide talent and another year of experience in the frontcourt. Moore, who Burt says has bought a “100 percent” as a senior, figures to start alongside Robinson to round out the backcourt. The first-year coach says he’s committed to junior Jose-Ann Johnson at center, with junior Belma Nurkic and senior Oditte Odisho expected to provide “scoring punch off the bench.”
At 68 career wins, this year’s seniors need 21 this year to become the class with the most wins in program history. But the records they’ve already helped write don’t compare to the stamp they ultimately want to leave on the program.
Wumi and Orsi, the self-proclaimed “Wo-Show,” know this is their last chance and are prepared to do whatever it takes to make the Big Dance. But part of their routine is downplaying the pressure.
“I don’t think it’s hit us yet. Personally, I don’t wake up a day and think this is my last Nov. 1,” says Szeci, giggling at the podium. “It’s more like there is no next year. It’s more like that’s it. We gotta make it. Even in our freshman year when we got here, we gotta make it. But it’s coming closer now.”
Jokes aside, Wumi says she realizes the finality of it all.
“Coming in as a freshman, I always wanted to make the tournament and make history, and we have yet to make the tournament and we have yet to win our conference,” she said. “Right now it’s either you make it or you’re never gonna get the opportunity again. So I’m really driven to make that happen this year and I’m sure everyone on my team feels the same way.”
If you thought last year’s non-conference schedule was tough, it’s only gotten tougher. The Red and Blue will face Cal Poly in the Maggie Dixon Classic this weekend. They also have Green Bay, West Virginia, a slew of Big East opponents including Notre Dame, Providence and of course the City Game against Pitt sprinkled into their schedule in December before they begin conference play.
“We’ve got a pretty darn challenging non-conference schedule. If I woulda known I would be sitting in this seat, I probably woulda put a couple cupcakes in there,” Burt joked.
“It’s not pressure,” says Szeci. “At the end of the day, it’s just a game and we just gotta love what we do, no matter who we play against.”