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Pitt volleyball knocks off Dayton, 3-1, to advance in NCAA Tournament

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Mariah Bell (10) and the Pitt volleyball team advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a 3-1 win over Dayton on Friday. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

Mariah Bell (10) and the Pitt volleyball team advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a 3-1 win over Dayton on Friday. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

Mariah Bell (10) and the Pitt volleyball team advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a 3-1 win over Dayton on Friday. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

By David Leftwich | Staff Writer

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Pitt’s first appearance in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament since 2004 was a successful one, as the Panthers kept their season alive with a stirring comeback against the Dayton Flyers.

Playing in a first-round matchup Friday night in State College, Pennsylvania, Pitt (25-8 overall) squared off against a formidable Dayton team which entered the matchup with a 30-1 overall record. The Flyers took the first set, but the Panthers stormed back to take the next three and clinch the match, 3-1.

“We’re obviously super excited about the win,” Pitt head coach Dan Fisher said at a post-match press conference. “Just want to congratulate Dayton on a great season. They had a great year, 30 wins, and it showed tonight why. The game never seemed over.”

Pitt experienced some sloppy play to start the first set in a pressure-filled environment and fell behind 11-6, hitting seven errors during that stretch. Using their serve, the Flyers further extended their lead and constantly kept the Panthers off balance. Eventually, the Flyers pushed their lead to a commanding 18-10 advantage.

While mounting a small comeback, this lead was too much for the Panthers to overcome and they dropped the first set 25-20.

Rebounding in the second set, Pitt jumped out to an early 6-1 lead. Dayton’s offensive play deteriorated as the Flyers committed more errors, proving to be the difference during the second set.

Cleaning up their offensive play, the Flyers narrowed the gap and pulled within two points at 14-12. But the Panthers maintained their lead with strong play by true freshman Nika Markovic and redshirt freshman Stephanie Williams, who tallied four kills and three kills in the set, respectively.

Maintaining the the same two-point lead at 20-18, the Panthers separated themselves and won five of the next six points to take the set, 25-19, and even the match at one set apiece.

Taking back momentum in the match, Dayton burst out to an early 10-3 lead in the third set. Pitt did a poor job receiving the Flyers’ serves and Dayton’s offense was clicking in the early portion of the set.

Remaining behind by seven points at 12-5, the Panthers turned around the set by winning the next five points to pull within two at 12-10. At this point, the set was a back-and-forth affair, with the Flyers retaining a slight edge.

Dayton widened the gap and attained a 23-17 lead — seemingly putting the set out of reach for Pitt. But anyone who’s followed the Panthers this year knows they’re never out of a match until the final kill. Pitt responded with a dominating seven-point run to take a 24-23 lead and assume control of set point.

The Panthers then coughed up the next two points and found themselves in a 25-24 deficit, with the Flyers in control of set point. Again, Pitt came back, this time winning the next three points behind two Dayton errors and an ace by junior Mariah Bell to take the crucial third set, 27-25.

In the final set of the match, both teams continued to commit errors, but some strong play from the outside hitters helped propel the Panthers to an early lead.

After grabbing an 8-6 edge, Pitt never lost the lead. The Flyers remained within striking distance throughout the entire set, cutting the Panthers’ lead to 20-18. From there, though, Pitt won five out of the next six points to take the set, 25-19, and the match, 3-1.

Markovic and Williams led the Panthers with 16 and 15 kills, respectively, while each notched an attacking percentage over .300%.

While this was a huge victory for Pitt — the team’s first tournament win since 2003 against the University of Pennsylvania — the Panthers will need to regroup and prepare for another formidable test.

In the second round of the tournament, Pitt will take on the No. 13 Penn State Nittany Lions on the Lions’ home court at 6:30 p.m Saturday.

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Pitt volleyball knocks off Dayton, 3-1, to advance in NCAA Tournament