March 19, 2009

Coach Agnus Berenato took over a downtrodden Pittsburgh program five years ago and has quickly turned it into an NCAA tournament regular, guiding the team to its first regional semifinal appearance last year.

As the 15th-ranked Panthers enter the tournament for the third consecutive season, they have a deeper run in mind.

Led by dynamic senior guard Shavonte Zellous, fourth-seeded Pitt kicks off its quest to reach the first Final Four in school history on Saturday night when it faces 13th-seeded Montana in a first-round matchup in Seattle.

Berenato took over a program in 2003-04 that hadn't had a winning record in the Big East since 1994-95.

Following two tough seasons when Berenato first came on board, the Panthers (23-7) have become a perennial contender. They won 22 games in 2005-06, won a game in the NCAA tournament in 2006-07 and made it to the regional semifinals last season before losing to eventual national runner-up Stanford.

"We've done this before so there's nothing to get adjusted to and no surprises when it comes to playing tournament games," said Zellous, the nation's eighth-leading scorer at 22.5 points per game. "We had great success last year winning a couple games and making it to the Sweet 16, now we have to go out this year and take it a step further."

Zellous, along with Berenato, has been the biggest reason for the program's turnaround. On March 5, she was unanimously named to her third consecutive All-Big East first team.

While Zellous seems like a lock to get her points - she's been held below 15 twice all season - Pitt's ultimate success in the tournament may depend upon what it gets from other scoring options.

Senior guard Xenia Stewart is the Panthers' second-leading scorer at 11.1 points per game, but if she struggles so does her team. Pitt is 4-4 when Stewart is held to seven points or fewer, including a 69-63 loss to then-No. 5 Louisville on March 9 in the semifinals of the Big East tournament.

Montana (28-4) has won 11 games in a row and 20 of 21, with the only loss coming 72-62 at Portland State on Jan. 29.

The Lady Grizzlies, though, got revenge for their lone Big Sky conference loss. They beat the Vikings 70-60 in their regular-season finale on March 7 behind 22 points from Sonya Rogers, then topped Portland State again for the Big Sky tournament title a week later thanks to 23 from Mandy Morales in a 69-62 victory.

Montana, which as a No. 13 seed last season lost 75-62 in the first round to fourth-seeded Vanderbilt, may have a bit of an advantage this time. Missoula is about 2,000 miles closer to Seattle than Pittsburgh is.

"You don't know what your seed is going to be and you don't know who you're going to be playing," coach Robin Selvig said, "but I was really hoping we were going to be in Seattle, so we're off to a good start."

Pitt and Montana have faced one common opponent, third-ranked Maryland. The Panthers beat the Terrapins by 29 points while the Lady Grizzlies lost by 23.

The winner will face either fifth-seeded Xavier or 12th-seeded Gonzaga on Monday night.