GREENSBORO, N.C. — In the aftermath of Pitt’s 59-41 win over Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, senior guard Nelly Cummings walked in front of the Pitt fan section.
Cummings raised his jersey and shouted the words, ‘We back’ to an adoring contingent of Pitt faithful at the Greensboro Coliseum. The program was celebrating winning two tournament games in the same year for the first time since 2009.
The Midland, Pa native laughed it off and admitted he was caught up in the moment of securing an NCAA Tournament victory, but that win was also personal for Pitt’s starting point guard.
How could it not be?
Cummings was not recruited by Pitt out of high school, but as a highly sought after player in the transfer portal last season, Pitt was the first school to reach out to him, and he wasted little time signing up to play for his hometown team.
“That’s what I came home to do,” Cummings said after leading Pitt to a pair of tournament victories in the past week. “It’s definitely a personal thing for me, but this is good for everyone in it. I was just happy I was able to do this for everybody…and we’re not done yet.”
Cummings delivering on a Sweet 16 berth or greater for Pitt is still in the cards this year, but for now the initial goal was 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 throughout the season, and it has been raised to another level in March.
Cummings had played in the past two NCAA Tournaments for Colgate and he has been able to draw on that experience so far in this year’s big dance. He has led Pitt in scoring both times, after posting 15 points against Mississippi State, and 13 in the dominant win over Iowa State.
Pitt head coach Jeff Capel had an idea bringing in a point guard with March experience would be beneficial to his program.
“He probably has the most experience in the NCAA Tournament of anyone on our team, and he has always played well in the tournament,” Capel said of his starting point guard. “If you look back at his time at Colgate in the games that they played in the NCAA Tournament, he played very well.”
He’s not wrong.
Cummings has now played in four NCAA Tournament games factoring in his time at Colgate and both games this postseason and he has a very impressive stat line. Cummings is averaging 15.5 points, 4.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.2 steals in four career NCAA Tournament, and he is a 43% shooter as well.
“Nelly is a really confident young man,” said Capel. “We have a lot of confidence in him. We know that he can go on some spurts where he can put the ball in the basket. He has done that all year, and we have a lot of confidence in him to do that.”
The personal spurt Cummings had on Friday in the team’s win over Iowa State was notable. 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 sequence of the first half to give the Panthers some breathing room from the Cyclones.
“The game was just kind of playing out the way it was,” Cummings said of that second half push. “I wasn’t thinking consciously that I had to make a play. The opportunity presented itself and I just wanted to take it.”
Cummings has been able to do that for Pitt many times this season and it’s a trait that opposing coaches have noticed as well. Xavier coach Sean Miller, a former Pitt point guard himself, 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 both score a double-figure score and he also makes his teammates better… Obviously in Nelly’s case he can beat you with his scoring, his three-point shooting, and he can also beat you by getting in the lane and making people better.”
His teammates have fed off those qualities all season long.
“I would just say Nelly is a competitor,” Jamarius Burton said of his backcourt mate. “You know, when he comes into the game aggressive, we feed off his energy. You know, he started off the half last game on a roll, and we definitely fed off that energy and was able to keep it going.”
Cummings came to Pitt to turn things around, and his teammates have seen that personal ownership he has with this program throughout the season.
“He’s all about what Pittsburgh represents man,” Blake Hinson said. “Just real dog, and that’s just…we feed off that.”
It has been a whirlwind ride for Cummings. This is his sixth year in college and he is on his third program. He is appreciative of the journey as he heads into today’s game and is proud of what they have accomplished to this point.
“We’ve been through a lot this year,” Cummings said. “I think it’s a good thing for the program, university, and 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.