In front of a record-breaking crowd, No. 6 Pitt volleyball fell to No. 4 Penn State at the Petersen Events Center on Sunday afternoon in a thrilling 3-2 loss.
Pitt (11-1) swept the Nittany Lions (7-2) in the first match of a home-and-home series with Penn State, two days earlier in State College. Although the Panthers dominated that tilt, Penn State was eager for revenge on Sunday.
The first set established the tone, with both teams fighting for first blood. Pitt dipped into its deep bench to combat the Nittany Lions’ tough front line, bringing in 6-foot-1 first-year player Chiamaka Nwokolo and 6-foot-2 sophomore Sabrina Starks. Neither would get any attack opportunities however, which the Panthers struggled mightily with all afternoon.
After posting a hitting percentage of .337 in their previous match against the Nittany Lions, the Panthers were held to an abysmal .048 clip in the first set on Sunday, their second-worst of the season. Panthers head coach Dan Fisher contrasted Pitt’s play on Friday and Saturday postgame.
“The story of this one was the exact opposite of [Friday], where our offense was so good,” Fisher said. “We definitely did a good enough job to win defensively [tonight], but our offense struggled.”
Facing triple-set point for the Nittany Lions while down three, Pitt battled back and evened the score at 24-24. But an attack error by junior Kayla Lund gave the Nittany Lions the first set game in extra points, 28-26.
The 5,195 fans who filed into the Pete shattered the previous attendance record of 3,179 set against Duke last year. Pitt, who plays the majority of its home matches at the Fitzgerald Field House, was not used to an audience of this size.
“It was exciting but also you could tell it made us a little bit nervous,” Lund said. “By the time we got to the third, maybe even the second set, you could tell that we had kind of settled down and really used that crowd to our advantage.”
Despite the loss, Lund felt the crowd was a significant representation of how far the program has come.
“Finally having a lot more of the City of Pittsburgh behind our back, a lot more students behind us, it means a lot,” Lund said. “It shows what they’ve been doing as a coaching staff and what we’ve been doing as players is paying off. Of course we want to keep it going.”
After a shaky start Pitt came out for the second set red-hot, winning the first five points — including three quick kills from Lund. She would finish with a match-high 23 kills, which also tied her career-high.
Penn State slowly chipped away at the lead, and eventually tied the score at 14 apiece. When the Nittany Lions took their first lead of the set at 21-20, Pitt switched into another gear. The Panthers won five points in a row to take the game 25-21, tying the match at one set all. Pitt finished the second set with a .387 hitting percentage to Penn State’s .086.
Pitt once again started the third set strong, but this time the Nittany Lions completed the comeback. Despite holding a 8-2 lead at one point, Penn State rallied to tie the set at 13. From there, it remained in control. Pitt kept it close, but was never able to regain the lead, and the Nittany Lions won the third frame 25-21 to take 2-1 lead in the match.
With their backs against the wall, the Panthers was in unfamiliar territory. In its 11 matches this year, Pitt had only trailed in one of them.
Feeding off of the home crowd’s energy, Pitt convincingly took the fourth game, forcing a decisive fifth set. Starks and junior Chinaza Ndee came up huge for the Panthers, recording six assisted blocks between the two of them in set. Ndee finished with 16 kills and a team-high 10 blocks. Pitt never trailed in the set, and Penn State never got closer than 4-3.
In the final set, to 15 this time instead of 25, Penn State gained momentum quickly by jumping out to a 4-0 lead. Pitt was able to stabilize themselves, eventually tying the Nittany Lions at 12.
The two powers alternated points after that, including Pitt saving a match point, but Penn State finally prevailed 16-14 to nab the second match, 3-2.
Though disappointed, the Panthers still feel that this weekend will prove useful down the road.
“This will make us better,” Fisher said. “We’re excited to look at some film and pick it apart a bit.”
Penn State head coach Russ Rose, the winningest Division I volleyball coach of all time, was impressed by the support the rivalry received, while remaining civil.
“It was a great crowd in Pittsburgh, they’re doing a terrific job,” Rose said. “They have a great team right now. For someone who’s seen a lot of the Pitt-Penn State activities for a long time, it was nice to see both matches to be played without any of the nonsense that exists in a lot of the other sports over the years.”
Pennsylvania is one of two states with two volleyball teams ranked in the top 10 nationally, making this rivalry even more meaningful.
“I think it’s great for the state, definitely,” Fisher said. “I’ve been trying to schedule them for a while, so I’m glad it worked out this year.”