Originally posted on pittnews.com by Jasper Wilson
Brianna Kiesel couldn’t make a shot. She couldn’t even come close.
The starting point guard of the Pitt women’s basketball team, who currently ranks fifth on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,893 points, has rarely had this issue of draining baskets over her past four seasons leading the Panthers. But these circumstances were different.
During the mid-1990s, Kiesel’s father, Steve, her older sister, Ona, and she would play at Addison Miller Park in their hometown of Utica, N.Y. They’d run and shoot around together after their father had played pickup there.
“She was so little, she couldn’t even get the small ball to the [regulation-size, 10-foot-high] basket,” Kiesel’s father recalled with a chuckle. “She was so mad.”
Steve can’t remember exactly when his youngest child started turning those misses into makes, but when she did so just a year or two later, he wasn’t surprised.
“She always kept trying to get better and better. She kept working and working at it,” he said.
That drive, first displayed on an outdoor court back home, has stayed with the 5-foot-7 senior and contributed to her exploits as much as any physical skill, which she possess in spades.
Since arriving in Oakland, the small but lightning-quick guard only missed one game of a possible 121, starting all the rest.
Her infectious attitude has also motivated her mostly young teammates to follow her lead, according to senior teammate Cora McManus. Together, Kiesel and company have brought Pitt (19-11, 9-7 ACC) to the verge of its first postseason appearance in five years and first NCAA berth in six.
“Even in offseason conditioning, she’s out there sprinting. We’ve got to all be at that pace [and] catch her, run that hard,” McManus said. “People want to be her. You want to be that type of player.”
Keith Danzy didn’t need very long to see just how high a caliber player Kiesel was.
The director of the girls’ program for Albany, N.Y.-based Amateur Athletic Union organization City Rocks, Danzy first met Kiesel when he went to scout her at a varsity game during her freshman year of high school. He’d stay for just a few minutes of the actual game and knew she’d fit into his program, which draws from all over the state of New York.
“I just watched her in warm-ups and [saw] how hard she was going, how deliberate she was in her warmups,” Danzy said. “She went through her routine with maximum energy, just working up a good sweat.”
Danzy had seen enough and, before leaving, let Steve know that Brianna had a spot on his team.
Similarly powerful first impressions continued. McManus first met her when they came on their official visit to campus together in October 2010. Playing pickup with varsity players while in town, McManus was struck by her peer’s energy.
“You could tell her work ethic from the jump,” she said.
The first two seasons featured little success, with the team unable to win a conference game in either. Ashlee Anderson, who played three seasons with Kiesel, said the losing took its toll on her ultra-competitive backcourt mate.
“I think she just tried to take the weight of it all on herself instead of looking at the bigger picture. That was one of things we always talked about amongst ourselves, not even with the coaches, was ‘Bri, you don’t have to do it all. That’s what we’re here for.’”
“It’s a long season, and you’re gonna burn yourself out trying to do it all by yourself,” Anderson continued
After the team showed little progress from the first to second losing campaign, the University firedhead coach Agnus Berenato April 1, 2013.
“My mind was all over the place definitely between struggling and not knowing what was going to happen,” Kiesel said.
Pitt hired Suzie McConnell-Serio a week and a half later. In the following months, McConnell-Serio and her staff worked hard to keep Kiesel around, having seen what the rising junior was capable of from coaching against her with Duquesne the previous two seasons.
“She was ready to graduate in three years and didn’t know if she was coming back just because of all of what she had endured,” McConnell-Serio said. “I knew if she played last year as a junior, we could convince her to stay.”
Both happened. Kiesel received her bachelor’s degree in the administration of justice last spring and is now working to complete a second BA in legal studies with a communications certificate. The team made noticeable progress with her that year, finishing the season with three conference victories.
“I think that with the new staff coming in, it definitely woke us up like ‘Hey, this is our fresh start,’” McManus said. “We gotta go out here, [and] we gotta get it.”
Kiesel has the highest scoring average of her career, 16.8, and continues to lead the team in minutes, just as she has each of her four years. The rest of the country has taken notice. Kiesel was named one of 15 finalists for the Nancy Lieberman Award, given annually to the nation’s top point guard, and to First-Team All-ACC and the conference’s All-Defensive team.
“I’ve been spoiled the last two years, having the opportunity to coach her,” McConnell-Serio said last month after Kiesel finished with a game-high 23 points in a comeback victory over University of Virginia. “She’s just unbelievable the way she continues to fight and finds ways to score.”
Time and again in the last part of the regular season, as she continued to move up the all-time scoring chart to her current position, Kiesel has deflected any questions about what that or any other individual achievements mean to her.
“We still have more games to play, and that’s just something you keep pushing [towards],” she said. “It just makes you want to keep working, just because you know there’s more to work for.”
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