Despite winning the ACC championship for the first time in program history, Pitt volleyball’s year ended the same way as last year — in a loss to No. 1 Penn State.
The Panthers (26-7 overall, 18-2 ACC) breezed by Virginia Commonwealth University (30-3 overall, 14-0 A-10) Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in State College. But the No. 1 Nittany Lions (31-1 overall, 19-1 Big Ten) eliminated the Panthers from the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row with a 3-1 second-round victory Saturday.
Four Panthers hit for double-digit kills in a strong offensive performance against VCU Friday, leading to an 3-1 victory for Pitt in the first round.
Leading the Rams early, the Panthers won 11 of the first 15 points to take an 11-4 first-set lead. Keeping up this intensity throughout the set, the Panthers maintained their lead and cruised to an easy 25-14 first-set win.
Prepared to play in the pressure-filled NCAA Tournament environment, the Panthers hit a whopping 18 kills in the first set compared to six for the Rams.
To open the second set, the teams drew even at 9-9. Winning six of the next seven points, the Panthers grabbed a 15-10 lead. Holding this lead throughout the set, the Panthers won the second set 25-20 to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the match.
Capitalizing on five Panther errors, the Rams took control of the third set early with a 7-2 lead. The Rams extended their lead to seven at 13-6, but the Panthers ripped off seven straight points to tie the match up at 13-13.
During this seven-point stretch, sophomore Nika Markovic slammed home four of her match-high 17 kills to lead the Panthers back into the match.
Unable to grab the lead, though, the Panthers fell behind the Rams again at 20-18. The Rams finished off the Panthers with a five-point run to win the third set 25-18.
Seizing an early 7-3 lead, the Panthers stayed ahead the entire fourth set. Hitting an efficient .321 hitting percentage, the Panthers played a clean set and capitalized on seven errors from the Rams.
“I thought that we went up against a really good defensive team,” head coach Dan Fischer said. “The first way to slow down a tough defensive team is to serve really tough. I was extremely pleased with our service effort.”
The Panthers captured an easy 25-13 set victory to win the first-round match 3-1.
Similar to last season, the Panthers defeated the A-10 conference champion in the first round of the tournament, but couldn’t manage to get by a perennial title contender in No. 1 Penn State.
Playing in front of a raucous crowd and homecourt advantage for the Nittany Lions, the Panthers kept pace throughout Saturday’s match. Four Panthers players hit double-digit kills, but an electric offense and strong blocking from the Nittany Lions gave them the edge in the match.
In the first set, the two teams remained within two points of each other for the entire set until the Nittany Lions finally found separation after a 19-19 tie.
Winning six of the next seven points, the Nittany Lions pulled away to win the first set 25-20.
Showing off their high-powered offense, Penn State hit a whopping 21 kills in the first set, compared to 14 for Pitt.
Overcoming an early 5-1 Nittany Lions lead to start the second set, the Panthers quickly worked their way back to take a 9-8 lead.
Remaining within a point or two of each other, the Panthers found themselves even with the Nittany Lions at a 16-16 tie. Winning the next four points, Pitt grabbed a decisive 20-16 lead. Redshirt sophomore Stephanie Williams led the Panthers with six kills to carry the Panthers to their bounceback second-set victory.
The Nittany Lions fought back and cut the Panther lead to one point at 24-23, but a kill from first-year Kayla Lund sealed a 25-23 second-set victory to tie the match at 1-1.
After an even 8-8 start to the third set, the Nittany Lions ripped off five straight points to take a 13-8 lead.
Strong blocking at the net kept the Panthers off-balance, but steady hitting from sophomore Layne Van Buskirk allowed the Panthers to stay in striking distance.
Still, the Panthers were unable to cut into the Nittany Lion lead, and Penn State closed out the third set, 25-22, to take a 2-1 lead in the match.
Jumping out to an early 11-7 lead, the Nittany Lions held on to win the fourth and final set of the match.
Extending their lead to as many as seven points, the Nittany Lions cruised to a 25-19 fourth-set victory to win the match 3-1.
“I’m really pleased with the fight we had tonight and I think we represented ourselves well,” Fisher said. “It was a great year, I love coaching this group.”
The season ended low for the Panthers, but as they return their entire starting lineup next season, there is hope to make another NCAA Tournament run in 2018.