Pitt volleyball breezes past Bison in Tournament opener, 3-0

Sophomore+middle+blocker+Sabrina+Starks+celebrates+after+beating+Howard+in+the+first+round+of+the+NCAA+volleyball+tournament.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Sophomore middle blocker Sabrina Starks celebrates after beating Howard in the first round of the NCAA volleyball tournament.

By Alex Lehmbeck, Staff Writer

Pitt volleyball started the 2019 NCAA Tournament with an emphatic statement, sweeping the Howard Bison 3-0 at the Petersen Events Center on Friday night.

The Panthers (30-1 overall, 18-0 ACC) came into the match with a chip on their shoulder. The NCAA selection committee shockingly gave Pitt — who ranks No. 2 in the AVCA coaches poll and No. 4 in RPI — the No. 6 overall seed in the tournament due to the perceived weak competition in the ACC.

Howard (20-13 overall, 14-1 MEAC) entered with an eight-match winning streak. The program has seen an uptick in success since head coach Shaun Kupfer’s arrival in 2012. In his first season at the school, the Bison went 1-23. Seven years later, they’ve won their fifth straight MEAC title.

Despite winning their conference, Howard had struggled mightily against stronger teams. The Bison were an unimpressive 6-11 in non-conference matchups coming into Friday’s match. To make matters even worse, they were without first-year setter Selmira Blair. Blair, averaging 5.45 assists per set this year, suffered a concussion in practice earlier this week. The late injury forced the Bison to switch from a 6-2 formation to a 5-1. 

Right from the start, the Panthers took advantage of Howard’s weakest area — size. Howard’s leader in kills on the season, junior Jurnee Tipton, stands at just 5-foot-8, only an inch taller than first-year Pitt setter Lexis Akeo. Pitt’s shortest attacker is 5-foot-11 junior Chinazee Ndee and its two starting middle blockers are 6-foot-2 sophomore Sabrina Starks and 6-foot-3 senior Layne Van Buskirk. 

Pitt’s frontline dominated the Bisons’ in the first set, racking up 11 kills. Howard, stifled by the opposing length, only managed three. The Panthers also recorded six blocks while Howard had none. They distributed their offense evenly, with no player recording more than three kills in the first set. A block from Van Buskirk gave the Panthers the set, 25-9.

The Bison adjusted well after the first set, making the second much more competitive. Their hitters found a better method of attack and posted their only positive hitting percentage of the night at .278. With Pitt behind early in the set, it was senior Stephanie Williams that stepped up to lead the Panthers. Williams’ five kills helped Pitt clinch the second set 25-21. 

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor
Redshirt senior outside hitter Stephanie Williams (13) spikes the ball during Pitt’s 3-0 victory over Howard.

She said afterward that she was not fazed by the fact that each match at this point could be the last of her career. 

“I try to just really be in the moment with my team, and think about it point by point. Each set means so much” Williams, who finished with a team-high 10 kills, said. “We’ve all put in so much work and I definitely want to fulfill our goal of going deep in the tournament, so I’m really excited and want to keep grinding it out. 

As Kupfer pointed out, his team’s change in play may have been due to players settling down from early nervousness. Besides Tipton and senior Kira Porter, none of Howard’s players had played significant time in an NCAA tournament match. 

“It’s an awe-inspiring thing when you come in to play a top ranked team in their home court, their arena, at the NCAA tournament,” Kupfer said. “It’s your first time, and you need a second to take a breath. Then, we were able to come back and put things together in game two.”

ACC Player of the Year Kayla Lund struggled offensively for the Panthers, posting her second-worst hitting percentage of the season at .111 and making two service errors. Pitt’s other hitters picked her up with efficient performances.

“It [gives you] so much confidence knowing that we have a great squad, anybody on the roster, even if they need to come off the bench, can come in and perform and so well,” Lund said. “If you’re having a rough night, and just knowing that we have some pretty amazing players out there next to you is a lot of fun too.”

Lund made up for her hitting struggles with impressive defensive play. She finished the match with nine digs, including six in the first set, helping hold Howard to a season-worst 0.033 hitting percentage. With the team up 20-12 in the third set, Lund made a diving save which led to an authoritative kill from Starks. 

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor
Junior outside hitter Kayla Lund (23) tallied seven kills during Pitt’s 3-0 victory over Howard.

Starks, who was another defensive standout with a match-high 10 blocks, showed off her jersey in celebration.

“I just had so much excitement, I just thought ‘I love this city and I love this team,’” she joked afterward. “Representing Pittsburgh, I just felt like it needed to be shown.”

Thomas J. Yang
The volleyball team does their celebration dance after getting past the first round of the NCAA volleyball tournament.

With the Panthers up 24-14 in the final set, a kill from senior right side hitter Nika Markovic sealed a Pitt first-round victory for the fourth straight year. Despite 13 NCAA Tournament appearances, however, no Pitt team has ever advanced past the second round.

The Panthers will have a chance to break that barrier tomorrow night when they host the Cincinnati Bearcats (25-6 overall, 15-1 AAC). Despite Cincinnati boasting the NCAA’s kill leader, senior Jordan Thompson, Panther fans have cause for confidence — Pitt swept the Bearcats at home in its second match of the season and have shown no signs of decline since then.

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