Panthers shut down Yellow Jacket firepower in statement sweep, improve to 7-4

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Sam Alburger | Staff Photographer

Pitt volleyball’s historic NCAA tournament run came to an end on Monday afternoon, and it happened in possibly the most heartbreaking way imaginable.

By Alex Lehmbeck, Sports Editor

Coming off a four-set win on Saturday against Virginia, the No. 22 Panthers had little time to celebrate before facing a much tougher opponent in No. 20 Georgia Tech. The Cavaliers had struggled to a 2-7 record before facing the Panthers, while the Yellow Jackets had put together the ACC’s most impressive resumé.

It didn’t matter. Pitt (7-4) extended its win streak against Georgia Tech (8-2) to 10 with a 3-0 sweep on Monday, thanks to one of the team’s most impressive defensive performances of the season.

The Yellow Jackets entered the match boasting one of the most explosive offenses in the ACC. Dominating the fall side of the season, the team sat first in the ACC standings, while the back-to-back-to-back ACC champion Panthers got off to an underwhelming start. Outside hitters Mariana Brambila and Julia Bergmann rank first and fourth in the ACC, respectively, in kills per set with 4.63 and 3.94.

A huge chunk of that offensive firepower, however, comes from 2019 ACC Setter of the Year Matti McKissock, who was sidelined against Pitt with a leg injury. Pitt head coach Dan Fisher praised Yellow Jacket first-year Isabella D’Amico, who stepped up in McKissock’s place.

“I will say I was very impressed by [D’Amico],” Fisher said. “I’m sure they’d be in a little better rhythm with their main setter, but I thought [D’Amico] did a really good job.”

While Brambila finished with a match-high 11 kills, Pitt shut Bergmann down the whole night, holding the talented sophomore to only five kills on a season-worst -.036 hitting percentage. Pitt sophomore middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo said the Panthers came prepared for the highly touted duo.

“We did a lot of scouting and had a good game plan going into the game,” Nwokolo said. “I think everybody in the front row followed their assignments and executed very well.”

The Panthers held Bergmann to a single kill in the first set, outshined by a dominant set from Pitt redshirt first-year Valeria Vazquez Gomez, who racked up five kills in the first game. Clinching the set 25-19 with a crafty ace between two Yellow Jacket players, Gomez said she came in with a determined mindset from the first serve.

“I was just in the moment and treating every ball like it was match point,” Gomez said.

The Panthers continued their attack in the second frame, making life tough for the Yellow Jackets at the net. Pitt senior right-side hitter Chinaza Ndee shifted the momentum early with two consecutive block assists. Nwokolo, Vazquez Gomez, junior middle blocker Sabrina Starks and senior outside hitter Kayla Lund added rejections in the second set as well. Nwokolo also dominated offensively in the frame, posting seven kills.

“We got good passes and we were connecting with the setters very well, and we were just able to get going,” Nwokolo said.

After winning the second set 25-23, the Panthers jumped out to an early 8-4 third-set lead, receiving a lift off of the bench from junior outside hitter Jordan Lockwood. The Yellow Jackets eventually pulled within two points late, but a string of kills from Vazquez Gomez clinched the sweep for the Panthers.

One of the most impressive aspects of the match came from one Pitt player’s underwhelming performance. Lund, the 2019 ACC Player of the Year, had easily her worst offensive showing of the season on Monday, ending with only six kills to eight errors. Fisher emphasized the confidence it gave him that his team still dominated despite off nights from its two best players, Lund and Ndee.

“Tonight was a real big moment for our team,” Fisher said. “I think tonight shows all the work that all the other players have put it in.”

With the NCAA Tournament field reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fisher added that the win lifted a weight off the team’s shoulders, strengthening its resumé to qualify for the postseason.

“Had we lost tonight, I think in the back of our minds it would’ve been some thought like, ‘Can we even make it?’” Fisher said. “I think now a win like this definitely makes the team feel like, ‘Hey, that’s something that we can do.’ We’re not playing to get better or playing for next season, we’re definitely motivated to win for this year and make a deep run in the tournament.”

Prior to Monday’s blowout, the Yellow Jackets hadn’t even dropped a set since the fall, and hadn’t been swept since October 2019. Nwokolo said the statement win will do wonders for the team’s confidence going into its road match against Wake Forest on Friday.

“It definitely boosted our morale by a lot,” Nwokolo said. “We definitely came in here ready to fight and the fact that we won is really big in three, so we’re really happy about that. All the hard work that we did last fall and then these couple months before we started playing is really paying off and really fun to watch and fun to be a part of and play with.”

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