The Panthers volleyball team’s 13-game winning streak came to an end this weekend — but they still sit at the top of the ACC.
In a weekend homestand at the Fitzgerald Field House, Pitt volleyball (16-5, 9-1 ACC) easily defeated North Carolina (10-8, 7-3 ACC) Friday, but lost to NC State (14-7, 9-1 ACC) in an uneven performance Sunday — marking their first conference loss.
Backed by a rowdy crowd almost filling the Fitz to capacity, the Panthers took down the North Carolina Tar Heels in straight sets Friday night.
The Panthers jumped out to a fast 9-3 start on the back of five Tar Heel errors. Once the Tar Heels overcame their early match jitters, they worked their way back into the match, cutting the Panthers’ lead down to three at 21-18.
Panthers first-years Chinaza Ndee and Kayla Lund took over the set from there. They hit kills on three of the next four Panther points to propel Pitt to a 25-18 first-set win. Just in the first matchup, the two combined for 11 kills.
“We really thought we had some players coming in that were ready to go, and [Ndee and Lund] are,” head coach Dan Fisher said.
The Panthers kept up the pressure and surged to a 5-0 lead to start the second set. The Tar Heels grabbed a few points, but the Panther serve combined with fluid offensive play kept North Carolina off balance — forcing the Tar Heels into a timeout, down 14-6.
As the crowd joined in singing “Sweet Caroline” during the timeout, a renewed sense of energy entered the arena and the team. When the Panthers returned to the floor, they dominated play.
Winning 11 of the next 15 points, the Panthers decisively won the second set 25-10 to take a 2-0 match lead.
The teams pulled to a 6-6 draw to start the third set after a few early errors by the Panthers kept the Tar Heels even.
Taking four of the next five points, the Panthers gained a three-point lead at 10-7. They maintained a slight edge the rest of the set, and a kill by sophomore Nika Markovic finished off a 25-21 third set victory and a 3-0 match win.
Markovic led the team with 16 kills, but first-years Ndee and Lund made the difference for the Panthers. Both brought a sense of energy to the floor, and combined for 17 kills.
The team returned to the court Sunday for a 1 p.m. matinee against NC State.
Despite a quick 4-0 start for the Panthers, the Wolfpack surged right back and took the lead at 8-7. Sloppy serves and serve-receives plagued the Panthers, but the two teams remained within two points of each other throughout the set.
After the Panthers took a 20-18 lead, the Wolfpack took control of the set. Capitalizing on a disjointed Panthers offense, the Wolfpack won seven of the next 11 points to take the set 25-21.
Four early kills from Markovic sparked an 8-6 lead to start the second set for the Panthers, but the Wolfpack worked their way back to tie the set at 10-10.
“I was really mad and I wanted to give it everything I had on the court [after the first set],” Markovic said.
Finding their rhythm, the Panthers scored nine of the next 10 points to take a commanding 19-11 lead. From that point, the Panthers cruised to an easy 25-15 set victory to tie the match at 1-1.
During the third set, the two teams played each other evenly with neither gaining more than a two point edge until the Wolfpack pulled ahead at 20-17.
Mustering momentum, the Wolfpack won five of the next seven points to win the third set 25-19 and take a 2-1 match lead.
The Wolfpack kept up the pressure to start the fourth set, taking a 6-3 lead. Maintaining this edge throughout the set, the Wolfpack dominated play at the net and didn’t allow the Panthers many untouched swings.
“They came out with a lot of energy, which we haven’t been faced that much with yet,” Lund said. “Normally we are the overpowering team with energy.”
Still holding a three-point edge at 13-10, the Wolfpack began to pull away, winning seven of the next nine points to take a 20-12 lead. After the Panthers cut the lead to four at 22-18, the Wolfpack won the last three points to take the set 25-18, sealing their 3-1 match victory.
A rare poor performance from Markovic compounded sloppy play all over the floor for the Panthers.
“This is Nika’s first off night the entire season,” Fisher said. “And [her production] is something we have been relying on all year.”
This is the first lost in the ACC for the Panthers. They still remain No. 1 in the conference, but now sit in a tie with NC State.
The Panthers will look to bounce back Friday when they travel to Louisville to take on the Cardinals in a 7 p.m. matchup.