They knew about each other before they got to know each other.
Growing up in Stillwater, Sara Scalia was a Gophers fan. She watched Destiny Pitts start her career off with a bang on the way to becoming the Big Ten Conference freshman of the year in the spring of 2018.
“I looked up to her, a lot, before I came here,” said Scalia, herself now a Gophers freshman. “Just the way she played.”
Pitts watched Scalia play a bit, too. In particular, last spring’s Class 4A state title game, when Scalia scored 24 — more than half her team’s points — as Stillwater lost to Hopkins.
“I was impressed with what was going on,” Pitts said. “I was like, ‘She’s going to help us a lot.’ ”
Now it’s less mutual admiration and more friendship. Scalia was coach Lindsay Whalen’s first high school recruit ever. Pitts is a two-time All-Big Ten player. They got to know each other over the summer, when both players lived in the gym, spending hours working out with — and against — each other.
Pitts is the leading scorer for the 11-1 Gophers, who moved back into the Associated Press rankings this week at No. 24. They host a dangerous Ohio State team Tuesday at Williams Arena. Scalia is averaging 11.3 points and leading all starters in three-point shooting (44.9%). She hit five of seven three-point attempts while scoring a team-high 22 points Saturday, as the Gophers opened the conference season with a victory at Penn State.
Pitts was the last Gophers freshman to score 22 points in her conference opener. Look at the way both players began their college careers, there are a lot of similarities.
“We play a little different position, but Sara is really good,” Pitts said. “I think she can finish the year off really strong. She’s been doing a really good job.”
Growing into the role
Pitts has made it her job to see it happen. Starting last summer, she has become Scalia’s on- and off-court mentor. They talked about the transition to college. About expecting ups and downs as a freshman. How to get over nerves, get through down times.
“Right when I first got here, she took me under her wing,” Scalia said. “We worked out together, a lot. She has given me confidence, just shown a lot of leadership. Obviously this is a really hard transition, for sure. Having her there helped.”
Whalen knew Scalia could shoot. That is not a surprise. As Whalen noted, when Scalia isn’t in class, eating or sleeping, she’s usually in the gym shooting. But, perhaps, she has been surprised by Scalia’s hard-nosed attitude and all-around game.
“Defensively I’ve been really pleased,” Whalen said. “She’s taken a huge step. Her length, her foot speed has been really something. It’s uncanny. Ever since we put her in the lineup, she’s been ready to roll. She’s been there for every moment.”
Scalia entered the starting lineup in the second game. In her third game, she scored in double figures for the first time. In seven games since late November, she has scored 10 or more five times and 20 or more three times. Against Penn State, she led the team in scoring, assists (four), steals (three) and was tied for second on the team with seven rebounds.
It was a strange game. The Gophers played, in Whalen’s estimate, the best 20 minutes since she became coach, shooting 63.6% while building a 54-21 halftime lead. Things came apart a bit in the second. That big halftime lead was down to 12 early in the fourth quarter when Scalia hit a three-pointer. Moments later, with the Gophers up just 13, Scalia took a pass from Pitts and hit another trey, pushing the lead back to 16.
“For a freshman to step up, in her first Big Ten game, and hit a shot like that?” Pitts said. “That shows a lot.”
The mental challenge
There will be difficult times. You don’t score 22 in your first conference game without rising near the top of the opponent’s game plan. Scalia knows this, in part because Pitts told her what to expect.
“That’s what I tried to explain,” Pitts said. “Sometimes you’re going to have to do something you’ve never done before. But you can do it.”
Said Scalia: “I think it’s just like, if you’re down, keep your head up. Keep going. Don’t get too much in your head if things aren’t going your way. Obviously, people are scouting. They know I’m a shooter. If they run me off the three-point line, I have to drive, kick, find the open person.”
Scalia’s emergence will only benefit the team’s spacing, giving Taiya Bello more room inside, give Pitts and Gadiva Hubbard more room on the perimeter.
Now Scalia is about to play in her first conference home game. She said before practice Monday that she usually has from 10 to 15 friends and family at each game.
They will see someone with a game more mature than that of many freshmen.