Pitt women's basketball team's struggles weigh heavy on coach

| Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, 8:03 p.m.

Even with her team's Big East regular-season losing streak at 31 games, Agnus Berenato still tries to project the same positivity she has throughout her 10 seasons as the Pitt women's basketball coach.

She doesn't scream or go on postgame tirades, at least not publicly. Berenato has a longstanding policy of not meeting with her team immediately after a game because emotions can be too high, and she believes in approaching every situation with a clear head. In front of reporters, she points out that her team is still young and has been plagued by injuries but hasn't given up.

Twenty minutes into a 30-minute conversation, however, Berenato reveals a symptom of the weight of her team's struggles.

“I don't sleep at night,”' she said. “I wake up in the middle of the night and write things down on paper for a new play or a different play or a thought that I might not remember in the morning. It's nothing for me at four in the morning to turn my iPad on and watch video because I'm awake. I'm so tired, but all I'm doing is thinking about the game.”

The Panthers (9-15, 0-11) haven't won a conference regular-season game since Feb. 15, 2011, when they beat Providence. During the two years since then, they have come heartbreakingly close on several occasions — including an 85-83 double-overtime loss to Providence at home Feb. 6 — but have beaten a Big East opponent just once, topping USF in the first round of the Big East Tournament on March 4, 2011.

That's bad, but perhaps even worse is Pitt's Big East record since they went 12-4 and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament in 2008-09, their fourth consecutive 20-win season. In the four seasons since, including this year, they are 10-49 in the Big East regular season.

If there is a silver lining, it is that Pitt will not set the record for the longest losing streak in the Big East even if they finish the season 0-16 for the second year in a row. Providence holds the record at 39 consecutive losses, there are only five games left this year, and Pitt moves to the ACC next season.

After last year's 0-16 performance, the coaching staff changed the system by making it simpler and also changed the practice routine, devoting more time to individual skills. So far it hasn't impacted the results, but the numbers do show some evidence of improvement.

Compared to Big East play last season, the Panthers' scoring, 3-point shooting percentage and rebounding numbers are all up, while turnovers are down by nearly seven per game. Their offense, at 61.1 points per game, is ranked ninth in the conference, their defense is 11th and their rebounding offense is fifth (40.9 points per game).

“We're still working and still trying to get where we need to be,” said sophomore Brianna Kiesel, whose Big East scoring average is up nearly two points per game this year to 14.4. “We've had a lot of close games. It's just getting over that hump.”

The last two games against No. 10 Louisville and No. 23 Syracuse were not competitive affairs. The Panthers set the tone early in Saturday's 80-39 loss at Syracuse by turning the ball over often, and their poor shooting and defensive breakdowns allowed the Orange to run away with it. It was their second-lowest scoring game and their largest margin of defeat of the conference schedule.

Berenato received a three-year contract extension in 2008 and is signed through the 2015-16 season. Athletic director Steve Pederson was traveling over the weekend but sent the following statement to the Tribune-Review: “Our struggles against Big East competition the past four years have been disappointing for everyone, and certainly no one is more disappointed than Coach Berenato, her staff and her team. I do not believe it is appropriate or constructive to make definitive assessments of a program in the midst of a season. Women's basketball, like each of our other 18 programs, will undergo a thorough evaluation after the team's final game of the season has been played.”

Berenato said this is without a doubt the hardest stretch she or any member of her coaching staff has been through in terms of wins and losses. However, Berenato said, she is the same coach now as she was when the team went to the Sweet 16 two years in a row or won the WNIT championship at Georgia Tech.

“I truly feel like every day I work the very hardest I possibly can work and I give the best to the University of Pittsburgh,” she said. “I truly believe that. I believe I was hired to be an educator, and every day I'm an educator. I don't ever question myself on that.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at kprice@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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