Pitt volleyball stays undefeated, downs Ducks 3-1

Pitt celebrates after beating Oregon 3-1.

Nate Kohler | Staff Videographer

Pitt celebrates after beating Oregon 3-1.

By Alex Lehmbeck, Staff Writer

The stakes were high for No. 6 Pitt volleyball entering its battle against No. 10 Oregon Wednesday night. The Panthers hadn’t dropped a single one of their 18 sets and came in riding a 26-game home win streak. One streak fell while the other still remains.

Suffice to say, the Panthers emerged with an electrifying win on national television, beating the Ducks 3-1 to solidify their spot among the pantheon of college volleyball teams.

The matchup was Pitt’s toughest test of the season by far. The Panthers (7-0) entered the match ranked No. 6 nationally, four spots better than the week before. Winning 18 straight sets will certainly help you move up in the rankings. The Ducks (2-1) came in ranked No. 10 and also hadn’t also faced a top-caliber team like Pitt yet.

With the two teams coming into the match a combined 24-0 in sets this year, someone had to give first. The first set was back-and-forth, as the Panthers’ quick 3-0 lead was the largest of the set for either team. Senior right setter Nika Markovic, who finished tied for a team-high 14 kills, led the team in kills and digs in the first set. Finally, after 19 tied scores and eight lead changes, the Ducks made an attacking error that gave the Panthers the set win, 26-24.

“I’ve been struggling the last couple of weekends,” Markovic said after the game. “I just went to the game [telling myself], ‘You can do this. Just play your game. Play your normal.’ I wasn’t really thinking about it too much. I just wanted to play and enjoy the game because that’s what I usually do, and I think it showed.”

The Panthers could only stay untouchable for so long. They dropped the second set 23-25 to break their perfect set streak. After falling behind 6-10 early, Pitt slowly began to chip away at Oregon’s lead. Thanks in large part to Markovic’s six kills in the set, Pitt briefly took a 23-22 lead. But it couldn’t keep the momentum, and the Ducks reeled off three quick points to even up the match.

The third set was far more one-sided. Pitt never trailed and came away with a 25-20 win. The Panthers gained set point at 24-18, but the Ducks wouldn’t go away quite yet. After two failed set points, a kill from redshirt senior Stephanie Williams ended Oregon’s run and put the Panthers up 2-1 in the match.

As the commentators on ESPNU noted throughout the match, it was extremely hot in the Fitzgerald Field House. The venue doesn’t have air conditioning and with the heat outside, temperatures reached 91 degrees inside the gymnasium.

“It definitely takes a toll,” junior outside hitter Kayla Lund said. “Especially in a four-setter, it’s going back and forth … You’re getting tired. Those longer rallies are starting to seem a little bit longer, but I think it was to our advantage because we’re used to having a gym with no air conditioning.”

Markovic agreed that the Panthers were better prepared for the heat.

“The heat just makes us better,” Markovic said. “It’s hotter, we’re more sweaty, but that just helps us to be tougher.”

The fourth set was another tight one, as the Ducks attempted to keep the match alive by forcing a fifth set. But Pitt had other plans. Senior middle blocker Layne Van Buskirk took over the final stretch, notching five of her 10 kills in the fourth set.

“You don’t really know [your stats] when you’re out there,” Van Buskirk said. “You’re just playing every moment for itself. I was able to put up good sets and good kills. It comes with the practicing.”

Sophomore middle blocker Sabrina Starks, who had only appeared in seven sets prior to Wednesday, made one of the biggest plays of the night. Head coach Dan Fisher subbed Starks in for the first time late in the fourth set. With the Panthers holding on to a 23-22 lead, Starks blocked an attack from sophomore Brooke Nuneviller to give the Panthers match point, which they would capitalize on.

“Sabrina’s been training really well, she played well last week,” Fisher said. “I felt like [Oregon senior Ronika] Stone and some of the middles were starting to hurt us. [Starks] is a little taller and came in. In games like this, one play’s huge.”

The victory made Fisher the second-winningest coach in Pitt history, with 155 wins since taking over the program in 2013. It also extended Pitt’s win streak at Field House to 27 games and marked the Panthers’ highest-ranked win since beating No. 8 North Carolina in October of 2016.

“That’s the first time we’ve been in the top 10 and beat a top 10 team, so we’re making history and it’s awesome,” Van Buskirk said. “It’s so fun to be out there. You can always tell that the [home] environment was great.”

Next up, the Panthers will head out west for the Pepperdine Asics Classic in Malibu, California. Pitt’s first of three weekend games will come against Cal Poly on Friday at 1 p.m.