The All-Star on the Sidelines
Pitt women's basketball coach Suzie McConnell-Serio leads the lady Panthers into the ACC.
Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock
When you attend a women’s basketball game at the Petersen Events Center, keep your eyes on Suzie McConnell-Serio, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductee now in her first season as head coach of the Panthers. You’ll notice a subtle yet unmistakable motion when a play unfolds in front of her: For a split-second, one leg will inch forward as she fights the instinct to rush on the court.
“Yeah, there are times that I would like to lace them up and be the point guard on the floor,” she says. “More [often] than not, I’m intense on the sidelines.”
That’s perfectly understandable. The Brookline native has played, coached and excelled at every level of women’s basketball. In high school, she won a state championship with Seton-La Salle, where she was named an All-American, after a 35-1 season in her senior campaign. She was the first woman to be named First Team All-American from Penn State University, where she led the Nittany Lions to four consecutive NCAA tournament berths and set collegiate records, including high marks for season assist average (11.8 assists per game, set in 1987) and career assists (1,307); she still holds those two records today. As a member of Team USA, McConnell-Serio won a gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and a bronze in 1992 in Barcelona.
She began coaching at Oakland Catholic High School in 1991 but found time to make a pro comeback seven years later. In 1998, she joined the WNBA’s Cleveland Rockets, where she was named Newcomer of the Year a decade after graduating from college. Meanwhile, she was making Oakland Catholic — which opened its doors only two years before McConnell-Serio arrived — into a powerhouse. The team won three state championships during her tenure.
Taking new or struggling teams and leading them into dominance has become McConnell-Serio’s calling card as a coach. “Each place I’ve been has had its struggles,” she says. “[Oakland Catholic] was a new school. When I went to the WNBA [as a coach], Minnesota had never been to the playoffs.” The Minnesota Lynx finished with a 10-22 in 2002, their last season before McConnell-Serio’s arrival; after she took over, the team made an eight-game improvement and qualified for the playoffs for the first time.
“When I went to Duquesne, they had never been to the postseason; they had never had 20 wins in a season.” After she took over, they won 20 or more in five straight seasons, qualifying for the postseason each time. “So I’ve been in this situation before,” she says. In other words, each of the programs she’s taken over stopped struggling more or less the moment she arrived.
“I feel that the success we had at Duquesne provided the opportunity to be [at Pitt now], to coach at the highest level,” she says. “It was still tough to leave because I had a great situation. We had built Duquesne into something special.”
But the opportunity not only to join a lauded program but also lead a team into a new conference was a rare opportunity, she says. “When you look at going into [the Atlantic Coast] Conference with teams that have been in the NCAA tournament, have been to Final Fours, won [the] National Championship — competing at a high level is unbelievable.”
The opportunity didn’t come without adversity. The Panthers finished the 2011-12 season with an 8-22 record; the next year, they went 9-21. Most of the roster McConnell-Serio was inheriting was young; players with collegiate experience were going from a season of struggles to a year of more-intimidating competition.
“The first thing that we as a staff tried to do was get these players to believe in themselves,” says McConnell-Serio. “And, at the same time, develop team chemistry . . . As individuals, we saw the skill level, the talent level. [But] from day one, team chemistry on the floor has been an ongoing challenge for us. And we’re not where we want to be yet; it comes from game experience.”
Even with work to be done, this Panthers team is much different from the group that took the floor last season. For one thing, the players, who at press time barely had begun conference play, already had matched last year’s win total — including their first ACC victory, besting Virginia 79-75 on the road. They hold a winning record halfway through the season and have shown flashes of beautiful play — particularly when the ball is in the hands of standout point guard Brianna Kiesel, a junior from Utica, N.Y., who passed the 1,000-point mark for her career in December.
“Coach Serio has brought so much optimism to this team,” says Kiesel. “[She] helps everyone be a better player — and really learn the game instead of just playing it.”
“We’re comfortable having the ball in her hands,” says McConnell-Serio. “We have players [who] want to be so good and want to learn … they come in on their day off. They want to shoot. They want to watch film. They are so eager to win, to get better.”
She is quick to praise her players from the sidelines but is known to show frustration as well. Those latter emotions come from knowing that her players can succeed. “I refuse to lower my expectations,” says McConnell-Serio. “I’ve seen it. I know what they’re capable of doing. It’s just trying to get them more consistent with being able to do it each and every game.”
She seems to know that great things are coming — and she has evidence.
“Our first road game, we went to Ball State; it was a back-and-forth game … it came down to the end of the game, and we found a way to win,” she says. “The excitement in the locker room — just the energy that this team had … it motivates you to experience it again. These players are hungry to be successful.”