Once sophomore Kamalani Akeo slammed down the final service ace onto the court, there was no stopping the Pitt women’s volleyball team from rejoicing a pair of weekend victories against two reputable North Carolina teams.
Not only do the wins make a NCAA tournament bid a serious possibility for Pitt, but it should be expected after this weekend.
The Panthers (overall 17-7, ACC 8-4) faced off against North Carolina State (overall 14-10, ACC 7-5) Friday, and No. 8 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (overall 19-3, ACC 10-1 ACC) Sunday, at the Fitzgerald Field House.
The weekend of play started with a five-set battle between Pitt and NC State.
Both teams stayed close in the first set, but Pitt hit a whopping 11 errors. Despite hitting five more kills than the Wolf Pack, Pitt’s mistake allowed NC State to take the set 25-21.
Pitt eventually bounced back to take the second set 25-16, but NC State swung the momentum back in its direction to take the third set 25-15.
The fourth set started the decisive stretch of play in the match.
It didn’t appear to be a close set when the Wolf Pack grabbed an early 6-0 lead, but the Panthers relied on junior Mariah Bell and NC State errors to close the deficit to 17-15. Several Panther errors followed, allowing the Wolf Pack to take the lead, 24-18. But the Panthers worked their way back into the match point by point and tied the set at 24.
“Going on that service run with [senior Maria Genitsaridi who] has played here for three years and has been in a different role and has embraced that — and here she gets a chance to come back and go on that run, ” volleyball head coach Dan Fisher said. “We’re finding a way.”
At this point, to win the match, a team needed a two-point advantage. The Panthers faced a six-point match after closing a six-point gap.
Through the back-and-forth of the extended time, Pitt found themselves tied at 33 on serve. Freshman Nika Markovic served an ace to set up match point, and an attacking error from NC State led the Panthers to take the set 35-33.
“The one thing I’ll say is we keep fighting,” Fisher said about that fourth set performance. “It was a nice moment for a lot of players.”
In the final set, the Panthers found themselves facing a 6-3 deficit, but, in a small comeback compared to other parts in the match, the Panthers scored three points to take the set 15-13 and the match 3-2.
After the huge Friday win, the Panthers were prepared to take on No. 8 UNC Sunday.
Pitt started the match by playing solidly on offense, but struggled with serve receive, giving up an early ace and making multiple service errors.
Although this allowed UNC to take an early 11-7 lead, the Panthers surged back to close the gap 11-10.
The teams remained close, with the Tar Heels leading 20-18, but the Panthers’ straight three-point momentum allowed them to shift the advantage 21-20.
Redshirt senior Jenna Potts took over during this stretch, recording a significant solo block and hitting two kills.
Pitt, backed by a fired-up crowd and band, kept up the energy and grabbed the first set 25-20, while only allowing the Tar Heels to hit seven kills compared to their 16.
UNC started the second set with an early 12-4 lead.
“They had big, high blockers, which was challenging today,” Markovic said about the issues UNC presented the team.
Pitt regained its control and took seven of the next 11 points. After this, the match remained closely contested, but UNC eventually pulled away with a 25-19 set win.
Playing statistically similar to the Tar Heels, the Panthers excelled at categories not on the stat sheet — like hitting hard swings and playing with intensity — to take a 18-12 lead in the next set.
“I thought it was one of our better games of the season of executing our scouting report,” Fisher said about the team’s overall play. “We did a good job with their serve, which we knew we had to do.”
UNC seemed to lose focus while complaining about calls by the referees, so the Panthers seized the opportunity. Through strong serving and blocking, the Panthers took the third set 25-15.
The fourth set was a gritty performance for both sides, and the growing frustration was visible by the constant call-contesting from both coaches.
At a 17-17 tie, UNC seized a 20-17 lead after two Panther errors and a kill by Tar Heel Taylor Leath. Down by three, a kill by Bell and then two more by redshirt freshman Stephanie Williams tied the match at 21, forcing UNC to call a timeout.
Two attacking errors and a service error by the Panthers sealed their fate, with the team dropping the fourth set 25-23.
In the final set, the teams locked the score at 4-4. Forcing a UNC timeout at 8-5, Pitt slammed down three kills and eventually had the Tar Heels facing a 11-5 deficit.
Pushing the lead to 14-6, Pitt held at match point. With everyone in the crowd on their feet, a service ace by Akeo clinched the set and the match.
“We had a great time out there as a team today and I think we really clicked out there,” Bell said.
Among the key contributors for the Panthers against UNC were Markovic with 19 kills and Bell with 18 kills. For Markovic, this was her coming-out weekend for the rest of the season.
“She’s been limited with injury the last month, so you can see what we’ve been missing today — she’s a big piece for us,” Fisher said.
With these two key wins, Pitt has the quality victories necessary to be an NCAA tournament team — it’s just a matter of continuing to play well.
The Panthers will go to Clemson, South Carolina, to take on the Clemson University Tigers at 7 p.m. Friday.