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Pitt Panthers on the Prowl

Pitt's other basketball team is hunting for respect

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Pitt's Agnus Berenato coaches with a joie de vivre that's palpable all the way up in the rafter seats.

The Big East boasts five teams in college basketball's Top 25: UConn, Louisville, Marquette, DePaul and Pitt. It could easily host six, because Rutgers should climb back into the Top 25 any second.

I'm talking about the women, of course.

I admit I'm a women's-basketball neophyte. Chances are you are, too. For years, I saw NCAA women's basketball out of the corner of my eye, maybe watching the tournament from the Sweet Sixteen on. The only teams I was even aware of were Stanford, Tennessee, UConn, Rutgers and Penn State ... and I couldn't sport any of their colors.

But now I'm hooked, because I've finally got a team I can get behind.

The University of Pittsburgh's Lady Panthers are making a name for themselves, and laying the foundation for a winning tradition. And they're doing it in a tough conference: The women of the Big East play much like their male counterparts -- so physical it could be mistaken for a rugby game on a hard court.

The team has national ambitions, and in the spirit of thinking globally, acting locally, it has beaten its city counterparts, Robert Morris and Duquesne. It's even beaten the perennial big fish in Pennsylvania's pond, Penn State. "We had never done that," says Pitt coach Agnus Berenato. "Penn State has always been the crème de la crème of women's basketball in Pennsylvania."

To this point, it seems, interest in women's basketball has been so widely scattered that it can support only one team per state. "Ask people about the state of Tennessee and they'll say UT, or ask people about the state of California and they'll say Stanford," Berenato says. "We want to change that."

Ask people about women's basketball in Pennsylvania and they'll say ... Pitt? Well, not quite yet. They'll probably just ask if you favor Russ Grimm over Ken Whisenhunt.

In fact, maybe the Steelers are why coaches are on my mind right now. Players come and go, but the best college coaches define their programs. When you think Penn State football, you think JoePa. Duke basketball and Mike Krzyewski are interchangeable. Maybe establishing identity and continuity are as important to winning as is running effective offensive screens. And Berenato coaches with a joie de vivre that's palpable all the way up in the rafter seats.

No wonder her team plays a brand of basketball that is infectious. When the Panthers lost their senior point guard, Mallorie Winn, to a season-ending ACL injury in practice, they didn't modify their hopes for the 2006-2007 season. In fact, Berenato, who considers herself an educator first and coach second, saw it as a chance to impart some life lessons.

"When Mallorie was hurt in practice," she recalls, "I huddled the girls up and said, 'This is what happens in life. We're still going to play all the games on our schedule. All we can do is decide how we're going to handle it.'"

They've responded beautifully. To replace Winn, speedy sophomore guard Shavonte Zellous alternates with freshman Jania Simms at the point, though Simms has come along more quickly than expected in that role. Before entering the Big East portion of their schedule, the Lady Panthers were 12-1 and had cracked the Top 25, sitting at No. 22 in the nation.

There are still holes. The team is awfully young; it lacks a real three-point sharpshooter; and it also has problems in transition defense. The Panthers continue to experiment, moving players around and to see what works best.

They withstood Duke, but then were manhandled by C. Vivian Stringer's squad at Rutgers on Jan. 6. They rebounded at home, beating No. 16 Marquette in a gutsy overtime win -- their first over a Top 25 team. They added size, liberally using 6' 5" freshman forward Selena Nwude alongside junior stalwart Marcedes Walker. The strategy worked: Walker contributed 20 points and seven rebounds, while Nwude added six points and three rebounds. Shavonte Zellous (27 points) and senior Xenia Stewart (23 points) added explosive offense.

The ACC flaunts the No. 1, 2 and 3 teams in the nation, but there's a severe drop-off after Maryland, Duke and UNC. Conversely, with unranked Rutgers, West Virginia and South Florida added to the mix, the Big East is deep. It won't be an easy season for the Lady Panthers, but I doubt they'd have it any other way.

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