By Carl Adamec
STORRS, Conn. — As an assistant women’s basketball coach at the University of Pittsburgh, Shea Ralph helped the Panthers get to places they’d never been before.
In Ralph’s five seasons with head coach Agnus Berenato, Pittsburgh went from a Big East bottom feeder to the NCAA tournament Sweet 16. The season after Ralph left Pittsburgh to become an assistant coach to Geno Auriemma at her alma mater Connecticut, the Panthers finished alone in third place in the Big East — their best showing since winning their only regular season title in 1984 — and returned to the NCAA Sweet 16. Things were looking up in Pittsburgh.
But as quickly as the Panthers rose to some glory, the fall has been faster and steeper. Pittsburgh will take a 33-game Big East regular season losing streak into Tuesday night’s contest against third-ranked UConn at the XL Center in Hartford (7 p.m., SNY). The Panthers (9-17 overall, 0-13 Big East) have lost 27 straight to the Huskies over the last 20 years and have not beaten UConn in Connecticut since Auriemma’s first season here.
Or here is an even more stunning statistic. If the Huskies (25-2, 12-1) hold serve as a prohibitive favorite Tuesday night, Pittsburgh’s regular season league losing streak will equal the total number of Big East regular season losses UConn has had since the start of the 1988-89 campaign. The Huskies enter the game with a regular season mark of 378-34 over the past 25 seasons.
“Cleary I care about Coach B and the players that were there,” Ralph said. “There was something built. Coach B’s goal was always to win a national championship and when we got to the Sweet 16 it was a big boost to the program, the fans, and the support around the university. Everybody struggles, but it’s hard to watch good people struggle.”
In Ralph’s five seasons in Pittsburgh, the Panthers were 89-66. Since she left they are 72-79, but 17-39 since the start of last year.
Berenato came from Georgia Tech and replaced Traci Waites at Pittsburgh on May 1, 2003. Ralph joined her staff in her first coaching job that summer. The Panthers went 6-20 the first season and improved to 13-15 the next.
“That was hard. Yeah, 6-20 was hard,” Ralph said. “I think we ended on a 12-game losing streak. It’s hard losing and it’s hard to keep your players motivated when they’re losing. But those players kept going.”
In 2005-06, the Panthers finished 22-11 and reached the final four of the WNIT. A year later they went 24-9 and made their first NCAA tournament appearance. As a host school, they reached the second round before falling to Tennessee. In Ralph’s final season in Pittsburgh, the Panthers finished 24-9, reached the Big East tournament semifinals for the first time in 12 years, and defeated Wyoming and Baylor to get to the Sweet 16 before losing to Stanford.
In 2008-09 while Ralph was with UConn’s national championship team, Pittsburgh went 25-8 and didn’t see its season end until dropping a decision to Oklahoma in the Sweet 16. But over the last three seasons the Panthers have gone 14-17, 8-22, and this year’s 9-17.
The Big East regular season losing streak is the second longest in league history to Providence’s 39.
“But watching them, one thing that has remained the same is that they play hard,” Ralph said. “You can tell they work hard and I know she’s instilled that in them. It’s tough. I care about Coach B. I’m not the person that will call every week. But every couple of months we’ll text or I’ll see her here or in the Big East tournament.”
Ralph believes the lessons she learned at Pittsburgh and from Berenato have served her well since she returned to UConn after her All-American playing career with the Huskies.
“As a coach it was motivational things as far as work ethic,” Ralph said. “Coach B taught me how to work hard as a coach. I always knew I had to, but it was very difficult to go into coaching and realize how many other things that you needed to do other than be on the court and coach. I learned how to multi-task. I feel I started a real connection with players and how to develop players there. That was the biggest thing I learned.
“The caliber of players we got there aren’t the players we get here. I learned how to work with them skill-wise to help them be successful. I learned from Coach B. I learned a lot from Jeff Williams, who’s now at La Salle, about player development and recruiting. Because I think I worked so hard there it helped make the transition easier here. Everything we did at Pitt was so hard.”
Tuesday night’s game will also be the last between UConn and Pittsburgh as Big East members. The Panthers move to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.