The Sky's The Limit

The Pitt women's basketball team appears to be under more pressure this season with five starters returning from an NCAA-Tournament team, but fifth-year coach Agnus Berenato noted that she has been under pressure from the moment she arrived from Georgia Tech in 2003.

"We told all of these student-athletes here that we were going to turn this program around when they arrived here, and this is what we've done,'' Berenato said. "So, they came here with that expectation. (And) as coaches, I believe we have to put expectations on our players and not limitations. And we really believe that the sky's the limit.

"(But) we lost more games our first season than (assistant coach) Shea Ralph lost in her entire career (at Connecticut). So, there was a lot of pressure to turn the program around, but this is fun now. And it's fun because everybody believes in us. ... Players want to come to Pitt, so this is a healthy situation that we have here.''

And if the sky's the limit for a Pittsburgh team that went 24-9 with the program's first NCAA Tourney berth, first-round win against James Madison and initial national ranking since 1979, the Lady Panthers will need strong performances from all their top players, and there are several.

There's Big East all-star senior center Marcedes Walker and junior guard Shavonte Zellous. And there's also former starter Mallorie Winn, who sat out last year due to knee surgery after being No. 2 in scoring the previous year.

Pitt is ranked anywhere from No. 15 to 25 in every preseason poll and is expected to contend for the Big East title. And Winn didn't see her return as a disruption to the chemistry that was established a year ago.

"There's always questions about chemistry,'' Winn said, "especially with me coming back as a starter after missing a year with an injury. ... But I don't think about it. I don't think about points. I just want to win, and we need everybody on this team. So, whatever I can do to help this team I'll do it.''

Walker, Pitt's inside force at 6-foot-3, led the team with 16.8 points per game in 2005-06 and scored 15.9 points on average last season. Zellous led the Lady Panthers with 19.1 points per game. The other returning starters are junior guard Xenia Stewart (11.3), sophomore guard Jania Sims (5.8) and junior Sylvie Tafen (2.3).

"I think we've really been playing well since Mallorie has come back,'' Walker said. "We basically only used six players last season with three guards, but now we have six players who are starters with five returning starters and Mallorie. So, we definitely will have a better rotation this year.

"And I don't think it should cause any problems. We just want to win, so I'm excited to have Mallorie back. And with more depth, I think we'll be able to compete with all the good teams on our schedule. We've worked very hard in the offseason, and I think we'll be able to live up to all the expectations.''

In addition to the returning players, Berenato is excited about her recruiting class. She said she expects big things from the freshmen, in particular Shayla Scott and Chelsea Cole, whom she expects to battle for a starting power forward spot.

Pitt opens the regular season at the WBCA Classic tournament at Penn State Nov. 9-11. The Lady Panthers play Charlotte, Arizona and the host Lady Lions in a game televised by the Big Ten Network. The first home game isn't until Cal-Poly visits the Petersen Events Center Dec. 18 at 7 p.m.

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