Thomas J.Yang/The Pitt News
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Pitt volleyball had the talent. It had the motivation. And the No. 6 seed Panthers had swept second-round opponent Cincinnati earlier in the season. Their earliest test was supposed to come in the Sweet 16, in a tie-breaking third match against No. 11 Penn State.
But Pitt’s historic season came to a shocking and heartbreaking end on Saturday, losing to the Cincinnati Bearcats in five sets at the Petersen Events Center.
Pitt (30-2 overall, 18-0 ACC), coming off a dominating sweep of the Howard Bison in its first round matchup, entered Saturday on a 19-match win streak. The Panthers were also poised to avenge their notorious second-round troubles — in 14 previous NCAA Tournament appearances, their record was 0-7 in the second round.
In last year’s NCAA Tournament, Pitt suffered a devastating blow in its first-round victory, losing All-ACC star Kayla Lund to a serious leg injury. The short-handed Panthers were eliminated the next day in a five-set heartbreaker to Michigan. This year, the Panthers were at full-strength.
Cincinnati (27-6 overall, 15-1 AAC), rode its explosive offense all the way to Pittsburgh this year. The Bearcats led the country in both assists and kills per set, in large part due to senior Jordan Thompson, who recently set the NCAA record for kills in a single season since the 25-point scoring implementation in 2008.
Thompson is a very likely candidate for the 2019 National Player of the Year award. The 6-foot-4 phenom put up absurd numbers, including a 50-kill performance against UConn. She was the first player in Division I history to record 50 kills in a single match since 1999, and her 27-kill performance Saturday night played a crucial role in upsetting the Panthers.
Thompson actually has some deep family connections to Pitt. Her father, Tyrone Doleman, played basketball for the Panthers. Her uncle, Chris Doleman, played football for Pitt before enjoying a 15-year NFL career.
“It’s always really exciting to come here and play, and having that connection makes it that much more special,” Thompson said afterward. “When you can get a win here, it definitely means a lot.”
Saturday wasn’t the first meeting between the Panthers and Bearcats. The two squads squared off in the Pitt-hosted Panther challenge at the Fitzgerald Field House in both teams’ second match of the year, with Pitt coming away with a stress-free 3-0 sweep. The closest the Bearcats got to winning a set was 25-18 in the first. Pitt’s defensive play contained Thompson exceptionally well in this match, holding her to nine kills, her second-lowest count all season.
“When we first faced them I think that we were a really young team,” Thompson said after taking down VCU in the first round. “I think that we’ve obviously grown a lot. We’ve really improved on different skills for parts of the game. I think that we’re more of a complete team and a complete package than when we first saw them,”
Thonpson proved to be much more of a problem in Saturday’s rematch. The Panthers were on their heels the whole first set as Cincinnati’s attacking duo of Thompson and sophomore Adria Oliver played extremely well. In opposition, the Panthers were fueled by junior Chinazee Ndee and senior Layne Van Buskirk’s five kills each. After several lead changes, the Panthers finally clinched the set 26-24.
The Bearcats came back in the second set with even more tenacity. Thompson and Oliver continued to rack up kills for the Bearcats. Despite seven kills from Lund, the Panthers could not keep up with Cincinnati’s offense. A kill by Thompson, her 14th of the match, gave her team the game 25-21, tying the match at two sets apiece.
The third set featured strong play from both sides once again. Redshirt senior Hali Hillegas led the way defensively with five digs, helping hold Thompson to only two kills on eleven attempts. Van Buskirk also contributed to that stat, coming up with three blocks in the set.
The ultimate hero of the third game was redshirt junior defensive specialist Avery Perosa. With the team up 20-16, Perosa subbed in to serve for her first playing time in over two-and-a-half matches. She went on to win all five points on her serve, including an ace on the final point to close the game out 25-16.
“The way that we train, [head coach Dan Fisher] prepares anybody to really come off of the bench and perform well at a high level,” Lund, who finished with a team-high 20 kills, said. “Girls on the bench know that and that’s the mindset that they have every game like, ‘If I get put in, I just need one point. What can I do, one point, just to make a difference for my team?’’’
With its back against the wall, Cincinnati proved it would not go down without a fight. Sophomore outside hitter Maria Mallon came up huge for the Bearcats, picking the Panther defense apart with her attacks and serves. She finished the fourth game with six kills and two aces that proved pivotal in the Bearcats’ comeback. Facing set point, the Panthers managed to get a few points back, but a Thompson kill gave her team the game 25-21, pushing the match to a fifth and final set.
Pitt started off the fifth set red-hot after back-to-back kills from senior Stephanie Williams gave the Panthers a 4-0 lead. After a Cincinnati timeout, the Bearcats stormed back with five points of their own to retake the lead.
Reminiscent of Perosa’s serving run in the third set, redshirt junior Zoi Faki came off the bench and helped Pitt win three crucial points in a row on her serve to take an 8-5 lead. One of these included a miraculous diving play by Faki to keep a rally going, inciting even more excitement from the stadium.
“That just shows how hard everyone on this team works,” Ndee, who finished with 16 kills, said. “People in the stands, or people that watch us, don’t see the people on the bench and how much time they put in. They put in as much time as the rest of us. Them being able to come in and score a couple points for us shows just how deep our team is and how hard we work in practice.”
Pitt extended its lead to 12-9 off a ferocious kill from Lund. Three points away from Pitt’s first NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in program history, the Bearcats came alive once again. Two kills from Thompson helped Cincinnati take a 13-12 lead. Another Lund kill tied it at 13, but a block from Cincinnati forced Pitt to fend off match point. Mallon came up with a huge kill to win the match, crushing the spirits of Pitt’s players and fans alike.
“It was a great fifth set and a great environment,” Fisher said. “I just appreciate all the support from the city and I appreciate all the girls on the team and the work they’ve put in this year. All the people that support us, our staff and our administrators. I just want to congratulate Cincinnati on a great battle and a great victory.”
After another five-set, second-round loss to end their season, the Panther fan base was silent. Soon, however, chants of “Let’s Go Pitt” swept the stadium, as the fans refused to allow Pitt’s historic season end with such a defeated feeling.
When this year’s senior class arrived on campus back in 2016, Pitt had not made the NCAA tournament since 2004. Not only have the Panthers qualified for the tournament every season since then, but they’ve continued to set new heights for the program with each season.
Pitt’s 29-1 regular-season record remains the best in program history. Its No. 2 ranking was not only the highest for a Pitt squad, but the best of any ACC team ever. The Panthers were the first team to go undefeated in the ACC since 2004. Nearly Pitt’s entire starting lineup made an All-ACC team, and Williams became the first Panther to be named All-Conference all four years of her career.
“Having an undefeated season is like a dream,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of things to be grateful for. It’s hard when you lose because your brain just focuses on the negative, but there’s just so many positives. I’m proud of the team.”
While it’s easy to stay wrapped in the moment of heartbreak, Pitt’s senior class leaves the program light years ahead of where it stood when they arrived, and with even more hope for the future.
“[The group of seniors] has really brought this program up to where it is. They’re all good people, which is a good start,” Ndee said. “They’re all good players. They’re all good teammates. I think that they have a lot to be proud of. I’m really grateful that I got to know them and got to call them my sisters.”