Panthers cruise against UVA, extend winning streak to 13

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Hannah Wilson | Staff Photographer

Pitt Panther Serena Gray sends the ball over the net during Pitt vs. WVB volleyball game.

By Richie Smiechowski, Staff Writer

The past seven days have been eventful for the Pitt volleyball team. The Panthers breezed past UNC and NC State on the road for their first two ACC victories of the season last weekend, building onto their already hot start. The week only got better when the Panthers jumped up two spots in Monday’s NCAA rankings, earning the No. 2 spot on the list. The ranking tied them with the 2018 Panther team for the highest in program history.

The No. 2 Panthers (13-0, 3-0 ACC) returned home to Fitzgerald Field House on Wednesday night to take on the University of Virginia Cavaliers (8-5, 1-2 ACC) for both teams’ third ACC match of the season. Backed by a raucous Volley Pitt student section, the Panthers handily defeated the Cavaliers in straight sets — extending their undefeated start to the season.

According to fifth-year outside hitter Kayla Lund, being back at home was a key factor to Pitt’s dominating performance. The Panthers played just three of their first 12 games at home this season prior to Wednesday’s matchup, causing them to embrace a road warrior mentality.

“We were really happy with the crowd turnout,” Lund said. “We think that they gave us a lot of energy, a lot of good runs … getting to be back home with this environment, with our Pittsburgh people meant a lot to us.”

The Panthers didn’t hesitate to get the crowd involved early, bringing everyone to their feet with a 4-0 run to start the first set. Senior outside hitter Leketor Member-Meneh made the most of her opportunities early, scoring two emphatic kills in the frame’s first four points.

While the Panthers never relinquished their early lead, the Cavaliers refused to quit, going on a 4-0 run to put them only one point down late in the frame. But Pitt stormed back with a 7-1 run of their own, finishing on an ace from first-year setter Rachel Fairbanks to take the first set 25-19.

Pitt found success on the serve in the first frame, scoring five points on aces. Member-Meneh and Lund both lit up the scorebook early, combining for six kills and nine digs in the set.

The second set started off sloppy for both teams, with three of the games first five points coming on attack errors. UVA found themselves up 3-2 early but it was all Pitt from there on, going on a relentless 16-2 run behind four kills and two block assists from senior middle blocker Serena Gray.

After its run, Pitt appeared to take their foot off the gas, committing several errors to bring UVA back into the fray. It ultimately proved to be too little, too late as the Panthers cruised to a 25-15 victory in the second frame. Playing at their highest level and remaining focused for the whole game is something that Lund says the Panthers need to continue improving on for the rest of the season.

“We had some good runs then maybe got a little soft or let up at times,” Lund said. “Our goal was to really keep to our standard and I thought for the most part we did a decent job with it. Every once in a while, we slipped up a little bit.”

Once again, the two teams were locked early in the third set. After both teams traded 3-0 runs, the Panthers managed to pull away and never look back. A five-point run put the nail in the coffin, as the Panthers completed the three-set sweep with a 25-15 victory in the final set.

Gray led the Panthers with one of her best performances of the year, tallying nine kills and four block assists on .692 hitting. The Panthers had particularly strong performances on the serve and on defense, notching 10 aces and 44 digs as a team while holding UVA to a .097 hitting percentage.

According to Gray, the team’s performance was much more consistent than their win against UNC last weekend.

“I think there was definitely a rise in maturity in this game,” Gray said. “I think when we played against North Carolina on the road we got a bit too comfortable. We definitely underestimated our opponent, they’re a very talented team. I think here we executed our gameplan, kept the pressure, it was a good step up.”

Both Gray and Member-Meneh have put together standout performances for the Panthers this year as transfer students. Head coach Dan Fisher said that impact transfer players have become the new normal for top tier, and his team has reaped the benefits of the change.

“A lot of the top teams have transfer players that are making a big impact,” Fisher said. “We have a lot of depth, our practices are competitive, I definitely think they’re helping our team a lot.”

The Panthers will look to continue their undefeated start in ACC play at home against Duke on Friday at 7 p.m. The game will air on ACCNX.

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