PITTSBURGH (AP) – Two weeks. That’s all Suzie McConnell-Serio asked. Give it two weeks, the new Pittsburgh coach told point guard Brianna Kiesel.
If Kiesel didn’t like what she saw and still wanted to focus on graduating early so she could transfer somewhere else for her senior season, McConnell-Serio, hired in 2013 to revive the sagging program, would do everything but help Kiesel pack.
“She was just tired of losing,” said McConnell-Serio.
Hard to blame her.
Kiesel spent a pair of painful winters as one of the lone bright spots on a team that dropped 33 of its last 34 Big East games before jumping to the ACC. That’s not what Kiesel signed up for. Better to maybe just get her degree and get out of there.
Of course just by telling Kiesel to give it some time, McConnell-Serio had already earned her first crucial victory. You don’t become a two-time Olympian, the NCAA’s all-time assist leader and the WNBA Coach of the Year without turning skeptics into believers.
A few days into workouts, Kiesel – won over by her coach’s relentless optimism and energy – told McConnell-Serio she was sticking around.
“You can’t not buy into someone that is an Olympic gold medalist, someone who is one of the best point guards to play the game,” Kiesel said. “It was bound to change eventually. I’m just glad I get to be a part of it.”
Less than two years later, the rebuilding project that once looked daunting has turned imminently doable.
The Panthers enter the final two weeks of the regular season 18-8 and 8-5 in the ACC following a thrilling overtime win against Virginia on Thursday night. They’re assured of at least a spot in the WNIT and can near NCAA lock status with a productive run through the ACC tournament.
Heady territory for a team that went 1,051 days between regular season conference wins, a stretch that ended on Jan. 5, 2014 when Pitt beat the Cavaliers on the road. The players hugged in relief in the locker room that night, grateful that streak that defined them for so long was over. The Panthers finished 11-20 and 3-13 in the league in 2013-14, competent if not always competitive.
McConnell-Serio decided to speed up the process. She promised incoming freshmen Yacine Diop, Stasha Carey and Aysia Bugg a chance to play immediately if they put in the work. She persuaded Monica Wignot to pick up a basketball for the first time since high school after spending four years on the Pitt volleyball team.
Most importantly she convinced the Panthers they could win – and win now – if they believed in each other as much as she believed in them.
“Every program I’ve been involved with was coming off some struggles,” McConnell-Serio said. “You have to set the tone early. You tell them about your vision and how you’re going to go about achieving it.”
That vision includes an eternally upbeat attitude. Practices sometimes double as pep rallies. There is no “good cop/bad cop” routine with McConnell-Serio and her assistants (including her sister Kathy McConnell-Miller). The last thing she wants to do is have her players feel like basketball is a job.
Barely 24 hours before facing the Cavaliers in a game that could swing their season, practice ends not with a rundown of the stakes but a couple of shooting drills and some informal chatter. Several Panthers sign posters while McConnell-Miller fires bounce passes to Wignot for spot-up 3-pointers.
Only the snow outside lets you know it’s mid-February and not mid-October. The games have the same feel. McConnell-Serio doesn’t do panic. There’s no point. Her players know when they’ve made mistakes. Reminding them more than once is pointless. She claps and shouts but doesn’t bark and yell. When things go wrong there are no histrionics. Last she checked she’s paid to lead, not throw fits or upstage her players.
The line between coach, mentor and friend is a tricky one to walk yet McConnell-Serio seems to do it with remarkable ease. Considering her remarkable resume – which includes a gold medal from the 1988 Olympics, a bronze from the 1992 Summer Games, the 2004 WNBA Coach of the Year with the Minnesota Lynx and a spot in the women’s basketball Hall of Fame – she is remarkably approachable. Her players call her “Coach Suzie.” Imagine that happening at Connecticut.
“She makes me want to work hard for her and for the team,” said Wignot, who showed up for her first informal workout in volleyball shorts and sneakers and left with a promise from McConnell-Serio that there was a role waiting for Wignot if she wanted it. “If I’m on the court and I mess up or something, I get upset at myself because I feel like I’m letting her down.”
When McConnell-Serio took over for Agnus Berenato – who led the team to three straight NCAA appearances from 2007-09 before the bottom fell out – she knew Kiesel had to be her first big recruit. She swung and missed on Kiesel coming out of high school, when Kiesel was a highly touted point guard from New York and McConnell-Serio was coaching a couple miles across town at Duquesne. Kiesel admits “I didn’t know what Duquesne was” and opted for Pitt instead.
McConnell-Serio didn’t let Kiesel get away again. She told the athletic if occasionally headstrong Kiesel that she needed to develop a 3-point shot and a better sense of her teammates if she wanted to truly become a leader. Kiesel’s scoring average jumped to 16.4 points per game last year and she set a career high with 111 assists. With the athletic and fearless Diop, Carey and Bugg coming on board and the 6-foot-3 Wignot returning to her basketball roots, McConnell-Serio knew the Panthers could go as far as Kiesel could take them.
“I’ve found ways to challenge her and make her have the same vision,” McConnell-Serio said.
It’s what winners do, a term that now applies to a team that has transformed from problematic to promising at warp speed.
Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP