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Pitt volleyball dominates in Panther Challenge

Stephanie+Williams+dives+for+the+ball+at+the+game+on+Friday+night+against+Western+Kentucky.+Jeff+Ahearn+%2F+Senior+Staff+Photographer.
Stephanie Williams dives for the ball at the game on Friday night against Western Kentucky. Jeff Ahearn / Senior Staff Photographer.

Stephanie Williams dives for the ball at the game on Friday night against Western Kentucky. Jeff Ahearn / Senior Staff Photographer.

Stephanie Williams dives for the ball at the game on Friday night against Western Kentucky. Jeff Ahearn / Senior Staff Photographer.

By David Leftwich | Staff Writer

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Following a discouraging loss Friday night, the Pitt volleyball team rebounded to secure a pair of wins Saturday in the Panther Challenge tournament at the Fitzgerald Field House.

The Panthers (9-3) hosted Western Kentucky, Lehigh and Robert Morris over the weekend after going 2-1 in the Panther Invitational tournament last week. Western Kentucky outlasted Pitt in a five-set victory Friday night, but the Panthers bounced back to sweep Lehigh and Robert Morris Saturday to conclude the tournament with another 2-1 finish.

The two tournaments marked the end of the Panthers’ most difficult non-conference schedule since Dan Fisher first took over as Pitt’s head coach in 2013. Beating ranked teams like No. 25 Colorado State and No. 22 Michigan each of the past two weekends should boost the team’s confidence for its upcoming ACC games.

Before facing the senior-laden Georgia Tech (9-3) roster for their first conference match of the year next week, the Panthers squared off against Western Kentucky in what proved to be the team’s most difficult game so far.

“The biggest factor in the match was we had no answer for the middle hitter [Rachel Anderson],” Fisher said.

The first set of the match was the most lopsided, as Pitt stormed out to a 25-15 win, but the Hilltoppers rebounded during the next two sets. The second set featured 10 ties, and Pitt briefly held a 26-25 lead, but three straight kills from Western Kentucky gave the Hilltoppers the win by a score of 28-26.

Keeping the momentum going, Western Kentucky came out and took an early 15-10 lead in the third set. Pitt clawed its way back on the strength of a six-point run to take a 21-20 lead, but again, the Panthers gave up the lead and the set as the Hilltoppers won, 25-23.

Pitt stifled Western Kentucky’s offense in the fourth set and racked up 14 kills in a 25-22 win to force a decisive fifth set.

After falling behind, 10-8, Pitt came back and took an 11-10 lead. But again, the Panthers could not hang onto the lead and lost four of the last five points to close the set. The Hilltoppers won the final set, 15-12, clinching a 3-2 match victory.

“I think our serve receive kind of shut down, especially towards the end of the matches,” junior Mariah Bell said about sets slipping away. “It was pretty consistent through the beginning and the middle, but once it was 20-20, that’s when we started freaking out and became very tense.”

Bell and redshirt freshman Stephanie Williams put up big numbers with 20 and 19 kills apiece, but it was not enough to overcome Pitt’s greatest difficulty this season: finishing sets.

“We mixed up our shots enough to confuse the defense,” Williams said about the offensive success she and Bell shared throughout the match.

Play went much more smoothly Saturday for the Panthers, who turned things around quickly in their next match against Lehigh.

Pitt came out on top in a competitive first set, 25-21. Then, after taking a 13-11 lead in the second set, Pitt won an astounding 12 of the next 14 points to take the set, 25-13.

The third set was more of the same. The Panthers took a 16-14 lead and then pulled away, winning nine of the next 11 points to put away the set, 25-16, and the match, 3-0.

In the final match of the tournament, the Panthers throttled cross-town rival Robert Morris in straight sets.

The teams were tied at nine in the first set after a back-and-forth start, then Pitt exploded to take the set, 25-13, on the back of 14 kills.

The momentum remained on the Panthers’ side to start the second set, propelling them to a 9-1 start. Their stellar blocking and team-play helped them cruise from there to an easy 25-9 victory.

Nothing changed during the third set, as Pitt maintained an efficient offense and a smothering defense to take the set, 25-15, and the match, 3-0.

“I think there was a learning curve from Western Kentucky to these other two matches versus Lehigh and RMU,” Williams said. “We need to always go for it and crush teams if we know we can.”

Williams and the rest of the Panthers know that they have a tough ACC schedule ahead and that these non-conference games prepared them for the veteran teams to come.

“We need to get ready to play Georgia Tech, who is a top 50 RPI team and has a ton of seniors that are some of the best in the league,” Fisher said. “We’re satisfied with the [non-conference schedule] in terms of getting some potential big wins.”

The Panthers host Georgia Tech at the Fitzgerald Field House Friday, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m.

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Pitt volleyball dominates in Panther Challenge