GREENBORO, NC — In the wake of Pitt’s 59-41 victory over Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, senior guard Nelly Cummings ran for the Pitt fan section.
Cummings lifted his sweater and shouted the words “We’re back” to an adoring contingent of Pitt faithful at the Greensboro Coliseum. The program celebrated winning two tournament games in the same year for the first time since 2009.
Midland native Pa laughed it off and admitted he was caught up in the moment of clinching an NCAA Tournament win, but that win was also personal for Pitt’s starting point guard.
How can it not be?
Cummings was not recruited by Pitt from high school, but as a highly sought-after player in the transfer portal last season, Pitt was the first school to contact him, and he wasted little time signing up to play for his hometown team to play.
“That’s what I came home for,” Cummings said after guiding Pitt to a pair of tournament victories over the past week. “It’s definitely a personal thing for me, but this is good for everyone in it. I was just happy to be able to do this for everyone… and we’re not done yet.”
Cummings delivers on a Sweet 16 berth or higher for Pitt this year still in the cards, but for now the original goal had been met, he wanted to turn things around for his hometown program.
Pitt had missed six straight NCAA tournaments before his arrival. He brought a leadership and experience factor that has been invaluable to this team all season, and it was taken to another level in March.
Cummings has played for Colgate in the past two NCAA tournaments, and he’s been able to draw on that experience so far in this year’s big dance. He led Pitt in scoring both times, having scored 15 points against Mississippi State and 13 in the dominant win over Iowa State.
Pitt head coach Jeff Capel had an idea to bring in a point guard with March experience that would be beneficial to his program.
“He probably has the most experience in the NCAA tournament of anyone on our team, and he’s always played well in the tournament,” Capel said of his starting point guard. “If you look back at his time with Colgate in the games they played in the NCAA Tournament, he played very well.”
He’s not wrong.
Cummings has now played in four NCAA Tournament games, taking into account his time with Colgate and both games this postseason, and he has a very impressive statistic. Cummings averages 15.5 points, 4.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals in NCAA tournament play across four careers, and he is also a 43% shooter.
“Nelly is a very confident young man,” said Capel. “We have a lot of confidence in him. We know he can make some spurts where he can put the ball in the basket. He’s done that all year, and we have a lot of confidence in him to do that.”
The personal sprint Cummings had on Friday in the team’s victory over Iowa State was remarkable. He scored 11 of his team-high 13 points in the second half. Cummings produced a conventional three-point play and a three-pointer in the opening series of the first half to give the Panthers some breathing room from the Cyclones.
“The game just played the way it was,” Cummings said of that second-half push. “I didn’t consciously think about making a play. The opportunity presented itself and I just wanted to grab it.”
Cummings has been able to do that for Pitt many times this season and it’s a trait the opposing coaches have noticed as well. Xavier coach Sean Miller, himself a former Pitt point guard, sees winning qualities in the Panthers’ lead guard.
“Nelly is a very good player,” Mille said of the Pitt guard. “You know, what I like about him is that he can score double digits as well as make his teammates better… In the case of Nelly, of course, he can beat you with his scoring, his three-point shooting, and he can also you beat by getting on the track and making people better.
His teammates have benefited from those qualities all season.
“I would just say Nelly is a competitor,” Jamarius Burton said of his backcourt mate. “You know, when he comes into play aggressively, we feed off his energy. You know, he started half the last game well, and we definitely fed that energy and were able to keep it up.
Cummings came to Pitt to change things, and his teammates have seen him take personal ownership with this program all season.
“He’s all about what Pittsburgh represents to humans,” said Blake Hinson. “Just a real dog, and that’s just… that’s what we feed on.”
It has been a whirlwind ride for Cummings. This is his sixth year at university and he is in his third program. He’s thankful for the journey as he heads into today’s game and proud of what they’ve accomplished so far.
“We’ve been through a lot this year,” Cummings said. “I think it’s a good thing for the program, the university and the city to have us back in the tournament.”
Cummings came to Pitt with a goal in mind and he went out and did it, and the story is still being written.