PITTSBURGH -- Duquesne coach Suzie McConnell-Serio was willing to go to the ends of the earth, or at least Budapest, Hungary, to turn around a floundering hometown program.
And yet there's still a lot of Pittsburgh to be seen in her handiwork.
When McConnell-Serio was hired before the 2007-08 season, Duquesne had just stumbled through its eighth season with at least 20 losses since moving to Division I for the 1983-84 campaign. Only once in that span did the Dukes finish at least three games better than .500, and they never qualified for even the WNIT, let alone the NCAA tournament. The industry that lent the Steel City its nickname provided the raw materials for plenty of building projects in its heyday, but making something of Duquesne was a construction job on a different scale.
Given West Virginia's geographic proximity and Big East affiliation, few games highlighted just how much of a basketball backwater Duquesne was than the regular encounters between neighbors separated by a state line and about 75 miles of interstate. West Virginia owned a 7-1 advantage in the series when McConnell-Serio arrived and beat her first team by 27 points on the Dukes' home court. The margin of defeat held steady in the double digits in each of the next three seasons, even as Duquesne posted the first three 20-win seasons in program history.
For McConnell-Serio, the game against the Mountaineers became a measuring stick. She wanted to get Duquesne to the NCAA tournament, and West Virginia had become a March Madness regular under Mike Carey, a program capable of holding its own against the Connecticuts and Notre Dames of the world.
"All we wanted to do was close the gap," McConnell-Serio said. "Each and every year close the gap because we were getting blown out. We couldn't compete with them for 40 minutes. We'd do some good things, but we just couldn't sustain 40 minutes."
So imagine how she felt when the scoreboard early in the second half of this year's game at the A.J. Palumbo Center in Pittsburgh showed her team trailing West Virginia 40-23 with 14:33 to play. Despite entering the game with more votes in the Top 25 poll (2) than losses (1), the Dukes looked completely incapable of handling West Virginia's defensive intensity. Of the first 34 field goals Duquesne attempted, six dropped through the bottom of the net.
What happened next was just one entry in a long season of wins and losses, a season still to be defined during the long march of conference play in the Atlantic 10. But if ever one win can represent more than 40 minutes of basketball, it was this one standing in for five years of work. Putting West Virginia on its heels with a 2-2-1 press, Duquesne roared back for a 61-55 win.
This time, it was the Big East team that couldn't sustain 40 minutes.
"When we got down 17, in my mind, I'm like, 'Please don't tell me this is where we are again.'" McConnell-Serio said. "But our players picked up the tempo defensively, started pressing and just changed the entire complexion of the game."
As much as team defense turned the tide, Duquesne also proved to have the deeper reserves when it came to individual playmakers. Alex Gensler, Wumi Agunbiade and Orsi Szecsi, Duquesne's three leading scorers on the season, combined for three points in the first half. They scored 33 points between them in the second. Unable to get a good look at the basket in the first half, Gensler hit three 3-pointers in the span of about three minutes in the second half, twice erasing leads reclaimed by the Mountaineers.
A Pittsburgh native, Gensler wasn't even considering Duquesne before McConnell-Serio was hired. A member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and a former Olympian, the coach carries weight anywhere on the basketball map, but nowhere more than here. Her husband is from Pittsburgh. Her kids go to the high school Gensler attended. McConnell-Serio is Pittsburgh through and through, and she gave the program an identity well beyond that earned on the court before her arrival.
"After researching a little, I knew Duquesne wasn't as successful, but I could tell where the program was going," Gensler said. "I know coach Serio's attitude is so persistent, so intense. I just wanted to be a part of it."
McConnell-Serio is quick to credit players she inherited for embracing a new philosophy, particularly former guard Kristi Little, but signing Gensler as part of her first class was the move that truly began shaping the program. Not even the coach envisioned Gensler growing into the Atlantic 10's leading scorer, a distinction she held until recently this season, but the prep player of the year in Pittsburgh as a senior represented both the talent and temperament the program wanted to keep close to home.
"Our goal is to keep the top players here," McConnell-Serio said. "Selling that family and friends can see them play and they can be the name in Pittsburgh that people read about in our papers. Become the face of the program. I want our players to be the face of the program."
So it is with many of the building blocks of the current success. Senior Vanessa Abel is from about an hour south of Pittsburgh. Juniors Jocelyn Floyd and Carly Vendemia are likewise from within a short drive of campus. Perhaps Pittsburgh's blue-collar personality is overplayed, but it's difficult to make that case watching Gensler run a mini-marathon to get open, Floyd create steal after steal or Abel take care of the basketball.
Exceptions like Green Bay notwithstanding, national relevance rarely follows regional recruiting. The final pieces of the puzzle required a little extra postage.
A 6-foot-3 wing with the ability to put the ball on the floor, shoot from long range and cause havoc in transition, Szecsi is undoubtedly the best Hungarian playing women's college basketball at the moment. Given the recruiting interest she drew from much larger college programs while playing at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, she might have the talent to be one of the best of any nationality. Out of control and in foul trouble in the first half against West Virginia, she totaled 11 points, three steals, two assists and a block in the second half.
"I've seen her spectacular, and I've seen her be just a good player," McConnell-Serio said. "She has the makings of a tremendous player. Some days she'll look like our best player."
Securing the services of Duquesne's other international star didn't require quite as strenuous a recruiting visit as the one McConnell-Serio paid to Szecsi's family in Budapest, but Canada's Agunbiade might be the most important player in the program. Szecsi tantalizes with talents that sometimes seem beyond even her own control. Agunbiade's only fault might be keeping her talents too tightly under wraps.
"She doesn't like attention drawn to her, and she just kind of allows everybody else to do their thing and won't want to take over a game," McConnell-Serio said. "It's been a constant challenge to her that she's our go-to player. She has to want the ball, she has to demand it."
At halftime against West Virginia, McConnell-Serio told Agunbiade she was playing scared while shooting 1-of-8 from the field. She hit every shot she took in the second half.
Duquesne's second-half comeback was startling in its suddenness, but the program's slow and steady growth over the past five seasons made the win more memorable than monumental.
"We expect to win every game we go into," Agunbiade said. "To us, it's another game. It might be a little bit more important, but it's just another game."
That's as it should be for a team with aspirations to the NCAA tournament and the talent and toughness to do something once there.
Even if they don't realize that isn't how it always was here.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.