Twice on March 3 the Pittsburgh Panthers women’s basketball community was left stunned.
The first wave of emotion hit during the midday lunch break as the athletic department broke the news of the great Lorri Johnson passing away. A very different rush took over at the edge of the evening when the Panthers, sporting an ACC record of 1-17, upset Notre Dame in the first round of the conference tournament, 67-65.
Sometimes it’s hard to find rationale for a result like that without looking from a much higher view. This time, it might be easier to chalk it up as Johnson guiding over her beloved program from a place we cannot explain.
Lorri Johnson, 51, was a women’s basketball pioneer and one of the greatest athletes to wear a Pitt uniform. A Western Pennsylvania native, Johnson decided to keep her talents close to home instead of answering the recruiting calls from warmer campuses like UCLA or Hawaii. From 1987 to 1991, Johnson was a force to be reckoned with, leading the Panthers in scoring all four seasons, eventually racking up 2,312 career points to make her Pitt’s all-time leader in men’s or women’s hoops. To this day, Johnson stands as the record holder for points in a game (45) and field goals made in a season (2,660), honors that helped her to be named three-time All-Big East and All-American as a senior.
In 2019, Pitt honored Johnson by raising her jersey into the rafters at the Petersen Events Center as the first woman in school history to have her number retired. With the ceremony also came her induction into the Pitt Athletic Hall of Fame, a privilege she was able to participate in. Those around Johnson described her as having an infectious energy for people and the game of basketball, and yesterday that energy passed into the women on the court in blue and gold.
A freshman embodied that spirit to the fullest.
Ice flowed through the veins of point guard Dayshanette Harris coming down the stretch. While the Irish were focused on knotting up the contest, Harris was locked in on sealing the deal herself. With fewer than 20 seconds remaining in regulation following a game-tying shot by Notre Dame, Harris dribbled, drew a double, drove around it to the right and down the lane. Lofting a perfect floater from the baseline with mere seconds remaining, the game was back in Pitt’s favor by two. An immediate timeout from Notre Dame went to waste when Harris forced the steal of her career in the backcourt with only the buzzer sound to follow. The dagger from Harris notched her first 20-point, 10-rebound double-double, marking the second 20-pointer in a row for the rookie.
If anyone resembled the presence of Lorri Johnson last night, it was Dayshanette Harris.
While Harris, and the rest of a very young program, show signs of turning the ship around, it’s still nearly impossible to try to hash out how a one-win team could wind up shocking last year’s National Championship runners-up. Sure, Coach McGraw’s program is in the midst of carving out a new identity and had more than enough hiccups of their own in conference. It was a historically nightmarish season for the Irish, finishing 8-10 in their first season sub-.500 in conference since McGraw took over in 1987. But, let’s not be quick to forget that Notre Dame has won the conference regular season and tournament all six years they’ve been in the ACC and eight total seasons in a row. Regardless of what happens year to year, it seems there’s no logical way the Irish are ever going to be beat by a No. 15 seed in the first round.
Yet, sometimes basketball finds a way.
The upset was just the first tournament win for second-year head coach Lance White and second in ACC history for the Panthers. It’s going to take nothing short of some more of that super karmic energy surrounding Pitt to keep moving on. Two more wins sit between them and the only shot at the Big Dance. Regardless of where the path leads Pittsburgh, be sure that Lorri Johnson will be with them along the way,