When Lindsay Whalen looks at Destiny Pitts, she thinks of Janel McCarville.
OK, yes, this might sound strange. Pitts is the University of Minnesota women’s basketball sophomore sharpshooter, a 5-10 wing with the longest of ranges. McCarville — who played with Whalen for the Gophers in the 2004 Final Four — was a slick-passing, bang-in-the-paint center.
So let Whalen explain.
The first-year Gophers coach, who leads her 20-win team into the Big Ten Conference tournament in Indianapolis at 5:30 p.m.Thursday as the No. 7 seed vs. No. 10 seed Indiana, was trying to describe Pitts’ approach to the game. Whalen sees a player who never seems to panic, who always seems to be the one smiling at crunch time, who is never afraid — one who, as a sophomore, has a charisma that draws her teammates to her.
And she thinks: McCarville.
“They’re so similar,” Whalen said. “They come ready to go. Destiny has the same fearlessness as Janel.”
Pitts, who tends to laugh when people try to ask her how good she is, laughed.
There is a reason for this, she said. The youngest of Demetrus and Tonya Pitts’ four children, she grew up the daughter of a Detroit-area police officer in a rather difficult section of the city. The family eventually moved to the suburbs, but Pitts grew up watching her parents work for everything they had in an environment that wasn’t ideal.
Demetrus Pitts lost his mother when he was 16 and his dad before he was born. He was determined to give his kids the support he might not have gotten.
“It shows how caring he is,” Destiny Pitts said. “How supportive he wanted to be. They always sent me to private schools. He wanted all of us to get the best out of everything, to maximize every situation. I was the youngest, and I always watched what they did.”
Stay in control of your situation, Demetrus always told his kids. If you can keep your confidence, you’ll be fine.
It’s clear his youngest daughter listened.
Moved to power forward before this season began, last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year got off to an up-and-down start. Opponents knew her, of course. She wasn’t sneaking up on anyone. And it was harder. Carlie Wagner had graduated and Gadiva Hubbard was hurt. So when it came to outside shooting, Pitts was kind of on her own, a focal point of opposing defenses.
After a 12-0 start, the Gophers fell into a stretch in which they lost seven of nine conference games, Whalen made changes and Pitts stayed the course. Whalen went to a small lineup, inserted Irene Garrido Perez into the mix and created some space.And Pitts took off. As the Gophers went 7-2 in their final nine conference games, Pitts averaged 21.6 points. Over the past six games, Pitts has averaged 24.0 points, shot 48.9 percent overall, 43.4 percent on three-pointers and 91.2 percent on free throws. In addition to her excellent three-point range, she has added a willingness to drive on opponents who close out hard.
“In the second half of the Big Ten season she’s been one of the best players in the conference,” Whalen said. It’s been her and [Iowa star Megan] Gustafson.”
On Monday Pitts was voted by the media to the All-Big Ten first team, and to the second team by the coaches.
Born to play
This is no surprise to Demetrus Pitts.
No matter what sport Destiny tried as a young girl, she excelled. Baseball? She could hit for distance. In basketball, she played with older kids from the start.
“And she won at every level she played,” he said.
About to enter the ninth grade, she was part of an AAU team that won a national title at the Boo Williams complex in Virginia with a starting five that included current Penn State players Alisia Smith and Kamaria McDaniel, Michigan guard Deja Church and Temple forward Breanna Perry.
“That’s when I knew it,” Demetrus Pitts said. “When they won that title I knew she’d be a special player. She wasn’t afraid of any opponent, no matter who she played.”
Frank Orlando agreed. For nearly 40 years, Orlando has coached girls’ basketball at Detroit Country Day School, winning 13 state titles. He has sent scores of players to Division I, but Pitts remains one of his favorites.
“I always remember she would smile in the toughest situations,” Orlando said of Pitts, who won two Michigan Class B titles and was a runner-up once in her high school career. “She had a confidence about her that was remarkable.”
As a high school freshman, Pitts’ Country Day team lost in the state quarterfinals. After the game she sent a text to Orlando, with a promise: Next year we’ll win the championship.
The next year, in the state semifinals, against a Goodrich team that had current Iowa guards Tania Davis and Alexis Sevillian, Pitts scored 28 points as her team won on the way to that championship.
“He was like, ‘You can predict the future!’ ” Pitts said. “I still have that text.”
Hungry for more
And now, Pitts wants to win here, in Minnesota. The Gophers might have to win the conference tournament to make the NCAA field. If not, an NIT bid should come.
She has emerged from a slow start to become, along with Kenisha Bell, the most important players on the team.
Before practice Tuesday, Bell talked about how Pitts is one of the best communicators on the court, always letting Bell know where she was. It was suggested this was because Pitts wanted to get the ball to shoot.
“She knows what she can do,” Bell said. “And I appreciate that. That’s what a player who likes to play competitive basketball does.”
Whalen doesn’t claim to see the future like Pitts apparently can. But, given her current trajectory, she sees a conference player of the year award in Pitts’ future.
“It’s not out of the question,” Whalen said. “I think she’s that good. If she keeps working on different things, she’ll have a shot at the next level.”
For now, Pitts is focused on the upcoming conference tournament. She is at the top of her game and in control of the situation.
“It comes from preparation,” she said. “I know if I’m confident, they’ll be confident. If I bring the energy, they’ll feed off it. If I stay calm in every situation, they will, too.”