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Could Berenato be benched?

| Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012

Agnus Berenato awoke the morning after Pitt lost to No. 2 Notre Dame by 76 points and didn't want to get out of bed.

Her husband and youngest daughter checked on her, but she wasn't ready to talk about it. (Nine days after the Jan. 17 loss, Berenato still couldn't say the words Notre Dame without tearing up.)

This was more than just another loss.

When Berenato later made her way down the stairs of her Edgewood home, she heard the steady knocking of someone's hand on the floor. Her husband's brother and his wife were working with their 3-year-old son who recently went blind. In Pittsburgh from their home in Las Vegas following their son's surgery, they were helping him to navigate by following sound.

"I thought (to myself), 'What are you crying for?'" said Berenato, 55. "Here's a little 3-year-old who just went blind. You've got it good. You have your faith, your health, your family and a great job. And if your school doesn't want you, they'll tell you they don't want you and let you go."

Berenato's contract runs through 2015-16 after she was given a three-year extension in October 2008. The reward followed the team's first appearance in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament, a trip they would repeat the following year.

But the team is winless this year in the Big East at 0-9 (heading into last night's game at Marquette) and just 8-14 overall. The Panthers will miss the postseason for the second year in a row, thrusting Berenato's job security into question.

Berenato knew this season would be difficult with a young roster comprised entirely of freshmen and sophomores. The Panthers have played well at times, including wins over Indiana and Michigan State and a three-point loss to ranked DePaul, but their conference record is hard to ignore.

This comes on the heels of two disappointing seasons: One ended with a first-round loss in the WNIT while the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament were being played at Petersen Events Center; last season, a senior-laden team underachieved and missed the postseason for the first time in five years.

Athletic director Steve Pederson on Thursday did not offer a definitive yes or no when asked if Berenato had anything to worry about. He instead mentioned meeting first with the coaching staff and then the players following the Notre Dame loss to offer his support.

Asked if he believes Berenato is still taking the program in the right direction, Pederson expressed confidence in her leadership and said he believed the program would get back on track.

"It's good to evaluate everything going on with the program and make sure you're putting yourself in the best spot to be successful, and Agnus and I will continue to do that," Pederson said. "Mid-year evaluations are tough because you don't know what's going to happen the next game, and the next game, so you have to try to not analyze mid-season. At the end of the year, we'll sit down and examine everything and make sure they have a good plan going forward."

The unraveling

It's hard to believe it's come to this.

Berenato inherited a program in disarray in 2003-04. In 2006-07, the Panthers went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time. In 2007-08 and again in 2008-09, they went to the Sweet Sixteen.

But in 2009-10 the Panthers couldn't rebound from the graduation of Shavonte Zellous, the program's third all-time leading scorer, and Xenia Stewart, their 11th all-time leading scorer.

At the end of the season, the coaching staff turned over after longtime associate coach Jeff Williams, whose recruiting efforts played a vital role in the team's success, took a head coaching position at La Salle. Caroline McCombs went to Northwestern and Yolett McPhee-McCuin went to Clemson, both as assistants.

All three members of the sophomore class transferred in 2010.

Center Pepper Wilson's decision to leave was personal and unrelated to basketball. She's now averaging 17 minutes per game at No. 10 Miami. Forward Kate Popovec transferred to Northwestern, and guard Sarah Ogoke wanted to move closer to home in Texas. She transferred to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi but left the team in the offseason.

They would have been seniors this year.

Ashlee Anderson and Leeza Burdgess, who were freshmen in 2009-10, both had injuries and are redshirt sophomores this year.

This season's freshman class was ranked 18th in the country by ESPN HoopGurlz, but top recruit Loliya Briggs injured her knee playing with the Nigerian National team this summer and is redshirting. Cora McManus was also injured off and on before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery this past week.

'I don't think we're a failure'

Berenato believes her staff has the right plan to resurrect the program again. She mentions a favorite saying of her late mother's: Plan your work and work your plan. And she believes that while you make adjustments to the blueprints, you don't scrap them and get new ones when something goes wrong.

"I don't regret any decisions I made in building this program," she said. "I think there were some situations that happened and some personnel decisions that weren't the best. Everybody sometimes misjudges perhaps, whether it be talent or heart or decision-making. All those things go into building a program. We went to five straight postseasons. ... I don't think we're a failure."

Pitt's loss to St. John's on Tuesday marked eight in a row, the longest losing streak since the Panthers ended the 2003-04 season on a 12-game slide.

Afterward, St. John's coach Kim Barnes Arico said the biggest problem she saw in Pitt was youth and inexperience.

"I watched them in the DePaul game when they had a chance to win on the road, so I've watched them play a bunch and I think that they are getting better, but when you're inexperienced this league is unforgiving," she said. "I think those kids are improving and they have some really quality players. Hopefully they'll take their bumps and bruises now but they'll be better for it in the long run."

Nothing could make Berenato feel good about the 120-44 loss to Notre Dame. But she did feel a little better when, six days later, Notre Dame beat No. 7 Tennessee, 72-44.

"We're not ranked, we're the youngest team in the country, and Tennessee, who's ninth in the country, scored the same number of points as Pitt and they had to hit a 3-pointer in the last second to get what we scored," she said. "So is my plan that off-course?"

Additional Information:

Berenato timeline

2003-04: Berenato's first year after inheriting a team that won 10 Big East games in the past three years combined. Finish 6-20 and 2-14 in the conference.

2004-05: Panthers finish 13-15, 5-11.

2005-06: Panthers finish 22-11, 9-7. First winning record in the Big East since going 10-8 in 1994-95. Advance to semifinals of the WNIT, where they lose to Marquette.

2006-07: Finish 24-9, 10-6. Fastest Pitt team ever to reach 20 wins. School record 12-0 start. First ranking in the AP poll since 1979. First trip to the NCAA Tournament. First win in NCAA Tournament.

2007-08: Finish 24-11, 10-6. School record four wins over ranked teams in a season. First trip to the Sweet Sixteen.

2008-09: Finish with most wins in school history at 25-8, 12-4. Second trip to Sweet Sixteen. Achieve highest ranking in school history at No. 14 in Associated Press poll. Defeat No. 8 Maryland for win over highest-ranked team in school history.

2009-10: Finish 16-15, 5-11. First-round loss in the WNIT.

2010-11: Finish 14-17, 5-11. First overall losing record since Berenato's second year. Miss the postseason after five consecutive appearances.

2011-12: Worst start in Big East in school history at 0-9.

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