Pitt volleyball advances to Sweet 16 for first time in program history

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Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

Senior right side hitter Chinaza Ndee finished with a team high 17 kills on Thursday night.

By Alex Lehmbeck, Sports Editor

If Pitt volleyball had lost to Utah on Thursday night, the headlines would have written themselves — “New year, same result: Panthers postseason curse continues.” The team had two options — make history or allow another season to become a mirage of what could have been.

The Panthers chose the former, and they did so in emphatic fashion. Pitt (18-4) swept the No. 14 Utes (13-5) in Omaha, Nebraska on Thursday night, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.

“To be good enough to be in this situation and actually do it means a lot,” Pitt head coach Dan Fisher said. “It’s a sense of accomplishment, but … seeing the joy on their faces is pretty fun.”

Pitt entered the match off of a dominant performance against Long Island University the night before, sweeping the Sharks after a shaky first set. But the first round has become a comfortable challenge recently — it’s the second that has caused problems. In the Panthers’ 47 seasons of competition prior to this year, the team had never advanced to the round of 16, losing all seven of its opportunities. Pitt’s last four seasons have ended at the stage the team stood at on Thursday.

Cincinnati ended the Panthers’ last season, thanks to a dominant performance from outside hitter Jordan Thompson, who had broken the NCAA single-season kill record a couple of weeks before. The Panthers met another powerful force on Thursday in Utah star outside hitter Dani Drews, the NCAA’s leader in kills per set this year.

Fisher said after the win against LIU that Pitt could only attempt to “contain” Drews instead of stopping her, and did that to near perfection in the first set. The Pac-12 Player of the Year racked up five kills in the opening frame, but those came off of 14 attempts with three errors for a .143 hitting percentage. As a team, the Utes only put up a .100 hitting percentage in the first game.

Capitalizing off their defensive success, the Panthers put the pressure on the Utes with a powerful offense. Pitt senior right side hitter Chinaza Ndee emerged with five kills in the first game, with her teammate, and ACC Player of the Year, Kayla Lund right behind at four. Junior middle blocker Sabrina Starks spiked two balls so emphatically they looked like they might go right through the floor, and she added three blocks to help Pitt clinch the first set 25-16.

Having dropped a set for the first time in nearly a month, Utah needed momentum desperately, but Pitt wouldn’t budge yet. The Panthers jumped out to a 6-2 lead in the second set, fueled by Lund and Starks’ service aces.

Utah won the next two points from a Starks serving error and a Drews kill. On the next play, Drews skied into the air looking for another powerful putaway, but Ndee and sophomore middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo timed their jumps perfectly and rejected the ball right back at the Utes to steal the point. The Pitt bench erupted in excitement.

Both teams traded blows throughout the rest of the set, until Utah evened it at 16 apiece. A kill from Pitt redshirt first-year outside hitter Valeria Vazquez Gomez sparked a 9-2 run that gave the Panthers the second game 25-18.

For the third time of the night, the Panthers gained momentum quickly at the start of the next set. With their backs against the wall, the Utes began to move the ball more and more in the direction of their best player, Drews. Pitt responded in a similar way, honing in on its own senior leaders in the clutch.

“That’s when Kayla [Lund] and [Ndee] started to do the same thing for us,” Fisher said. “Utah took their game to another level and then we matched it. In volleyball, you can beat a team by out offense-ing them, and that’s what happened tonight.”

Ndee and Drews began a back-and-forth of brutal punches, both racking up kill after kill with hitting percentages over .500. The Pitt senior said her performance in the 2019 loss to Cincinnati resided in her mind heading into Thursday.

“Last year during the Cincinnati game, I wasn’t myself,” Ndee said. “I was really tentative, I was really internal. I wasn’t really giving to the team as much as I wanted to be, and I was very determined not to be like that this year. My whole thing was just playing for my teammates. It wasn’t playing for myself or my stats or anything like that, it was just playing for my team.”

Once again, a late push made the difference for Pitt. With the Panthers up 18-17 in the last set, they went on a 7-2 run to clinch the sweep. Those final seven points Pitt won? Two came from Lund kills, one from a Ndee and Starks block and three from Ndee kills. Ndee finished with a team-high 17 kills on a .412 hitting percentage, 10 of them coming in the final frame.

As soon as Drews’ final attack attempt soared wide, the Panther bench swarmed the players on the court in jubilation. As the Panthers celebrated, embraced and cried in the match’s aftermath, the NCAA etched Pitt’s name into the Sweet 16 section of the bracket for the first time ever.

“It was just relief,” Ndee said. “It was just kind of an outpouring of emotion. We just worked really hard, especially this season with all the sacrifices we’ve had to make with COVID, with quarantine and testing. It felt like it was all worth it.”

Pitt, one of two unseeded teams remaining, will meet No. 3 Minnesota for its next battle in the quest for a national championship on Sunday afternoon. While the Panthers will get back to work on Saturday, Fisher said they’ll use Friday to recuperate, starting with one of the NCAA-approved leisure activities — a trip to the local zoo.

“Omaha’s known for a nice zoo I hear,” Fisher said. “There is kind of a drain when you play competition, so it’s good to have a day where we don’t need to be fully on.”

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