"I think we can get to the Elite Eight but [Stanford] is a phenomenal program," Berenato told PantherDigest.com after Friday's team dinner. "But we feel we can compete with Stanford."
To do so means competing with a program making its 21st straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinal have reached the regional finals in three of the past four seasons and are currently ranked fourth in the country under veteran head coach Tara VanDerveer.
Pitt, meanwhile, has never been among the 16 finalists before in the Women's NCAA Tournament.
The Panthers hope to beat the Cardinal with a full pressure attack. While both teams generally use a rotation of seven players, Berenato stated she might be tempted to go a couple of extra players deep, especially if Stanford utilizes a zone defense.
"They play a triple post offense and like to spread it out with lots of back door cuts," Pitt's coach said. "We're more of a rebounding and transition team. We like to be physical."
At times this has been a problem for the Panthers- witness the 41-9 discrepancy in free throw attempts in an early season 80-74 loss to Penn State.
Then again, in Pitt's victory against third-seeded Baylor (25-7) the sixth-seeded Panthers committed 25 of the 47 fouls called in the game.
Much of Pitt's fortunes figure to lie in how well 6-3 senior Mercedes Walker (13.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg) can handle herself in the paint against Stanford's two 6-4 post players, freshman forward Kayla Pedersen (12.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and sophomore center Jayne Appel (14.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg), whose play under the boards has earned her the nickname "Bam-Bam."
Walker was named a Region 1 (northeast) All-American for the second straight year and was the first Pitt player to be named a regional All-American since all-time Panthers leading scorer Lorri Johnson was so honored in 1991. She is only the second Panthers player to score more than 1,000 points and collect more than 1,000 rebounds in her career.
Walker is half of one of the Big East's top inside-outside tandems with junior guard Shavonte Zellous (18.1 ppg).
Senior Mallorie Winn (8.1 ppg, 3.5 apg) is Pitt's top outside shooter, converting on 34% of her 168 3-point attempts this season.
Winn's counterpart, senior Stanford shooting guard Candice Wiggins (19.8 ppg), is a two-time All-American after scoring more than 2,400 points in her career. She is projected to be a high first-round draft choice in the 2008 WNBA Draft.
While a Panthers victory against Stanford would be surprising, it would also figure to be another step forward for a basketball program that has made significant strides under Berenato.
Prior to her arrival the Panthers had suffered through eight losing seasons in nine years.
"When I was hired here I tried to recruit Charel Allen of Monessen. She was all the rage and a box of chocolates. She told us we were her 17th choice," Berenato said.
Allen would go on to star at Notre Dame, whom Pitt beat earlier this year in the second round of the Big East Tournament 64-53 despite Allen's 17 points.
It was the Panthers' first ever triumph against a Top Ten team, as the Irish (25-8) were ranked ninth in the country at the time. Stanford would be the second victory against such an opponent.
"I didn't know it would happen in five years. But I did know it would happen," Berenato said. "My goal is to win the National Championship and that was the goal Pitt had when they hired me."
The winner of the preceding Maryland-Vanderbilt game will play the winner of the Panthers' tilt against Stanford.
Pitt played the Terrapins (32-3) and lost, 90-77, on November 27, 2007.
NOTES- A charter airplane of Pitt administrators, cheerleaders, band members and boosters has arrived amidst the snow of Spokane to cheer on the Panthers at the Spokane Arena. Included in the group were Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and Athletic Director Steve Pederson.
"They support us all the time," Berenato said. "They come to every home game."
• Berenato believes top-ranked Connecticut (34-1) is the team to beat in the tournament.
"UConn is a step above everyone else in the country," she said. "They have 14 All-Americans on their team. They truly go out and play 40 minutes."
If Pitt were to play the Huskies, who beat the Panthers 90-64 on February 17 and 74-47 in the Big East Tournament championship March 10, in the national semifinals Berenato would offer her team the following advice.
"It may be easier to win a National Championship than the Big East Tournament because it's not day to day to day. There's always at least a day in between."
She added the level of competition is comparable since five of the top women's programs in the country play in the Big East.
PITT PROBABLE STARTERS
F 2 Sophronia Sallard 5-10 So. 2.9 ppg 2.5 rpg
F 33 Xenia Stewart 6-0 Jr. 8.9 ppg 4.3 rpg
C 45 Marcedes Walker 6-3 Sr. 13.9 ppg 9.6 rpg
G 0 Mallorie Winn 5-11 Sr. 8.1 ppg 3.5 rpg
G 1 Shavonte Zellous 5-11 Jr. 18.1 ppg 5.4 rpg
STANFORD PROBABLE STARTERS
F 14 Kayla Pedersen 6-4 Fr. 12.6 ppg 8.3 rpg
C 2 Jayne Appel 6-4 So. 14.9 ppg 8.8 rpg
G 10 JJ Hones 5-10 So. 6.1 ppg 1.9 rpg
G 11 Candice Wiggins 5-11 Sr. 19.8 ppg 4.6 rpg
G 21 Rosalyn Gold-Onwude 5-10 So. 4.9 ppg 2.4 rpg