Panthers volleyball narrowly edged by Cardinals in top-five battle

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Hannah Wilson | Staff Photographer

Pitt’s Chinaza Ndee (5) prepares to hit the ball at a game against the University of Virginia at Fitzgerald Field House on Sept. 29.

By Richie Smiechowski, Staff Writer

In one of the most highly anticipated NCAA volleyball matches of the season, No. 2 Louisville handed the No. 4 Panthers their second loss of the season — three sets to two — in a thrilling, five-set bout. The matchup was the first ACC game ever between two American Volleyball Coaches Association top-five teams.

For the Panthers (18-2, 8-2 ACC), the loss is their second in ranked ACC play this season. Their only other loss came at the hands of No. 18 Georgia Tech on Oct. 10. L&N Federal Credit Union Arena in Louisville, Kentucky, was Pitt’s final destination in a four-game road trip featuring gritty wins against Miami, Florida State and finally Notre Dame — who they defeated in five sets on Friday night in South Bend. 

Despite the loss, the Panthers remain tied for second in the conference with Georgia Tech and Miami.

The Cardinals (20-0, 10-0 ACC) have been nothing short of dominant this season. Their win against Pitt was their fourth against an AVCA top-10 team this season and 20th consecutive win since the start of the season. They now have complete control over the ACC by virtue of a two-game lead over the second-place group.

The highly touted matchup started as anticipated — a back and forth affair without many mistakes and two very formidable attacks. The game was deadlocked at 11-11, with 19 of the first 22 points decided via kill.

The game-deciding run occurred shortly thereafter, as the Panthers went on a decisive 5-0 burst to take a four-point advantage behind three kills and a block assist from senior middle blocker Serena Gray. While the two teams traded points for the rest of the frame, the Panthers held their advantage and won the set 25-19.

Senior outside hitter Leketor Member-Meneh finished off the game for the Panthers with back-to-back kills. She headlined a great first set performance by the team, racking up six kills on .667 hitting. Fifth-year right side hitter Chinaza Ndee and Gray both had perfect sets with six and five kills respectively on 1.000 hitting. The team as a whole hit a whopping .714 for the first set.

Down 1-0, the Cardinals pounced in the second set, jumping out to a 13-3 lead on a remarkable 10-0 run. The Panthers didn’t give up easily, and eventually cut the deficit to four going into the final points of the set. But at that point, the damage had been done, and the Cardinals leveled the match with a 25-20 set win in the second frame.

On paper the Panthers played a relatively clean set, hitting .308 with only three attack errors and one service error. Lack of attacks seemed to be the issue for the Panthers, who despite out-hitting the Cardinals, trailed them in both kills and attacks.

Louisville came into the third set riding the momentum of its second set victory and immediately jumped out to a 7-3 lead. Once again the Panthers refused to quit, tying the game multiple times and eventually taking the lead, 16-15, with the help of five service errors in a row from the Cardinals.

The two teams continued to trade points down the stretch in a mistake-filled third set. With the score tied at 25 each, an attack error from the Panthers and decisive final kill resulted in a hard-fought win for the Cardinals — who took the frame 27-25 and found themselves one set away from the win.

Neither team held a true advantage in the fourth set — the biggest advantage came for Pitt at 20-16 but was quickly eviscerated by a 5-0 run from the Cardinals. Despite the adversity, Pitt responded with a 3-0 run of its own and refused to give up the lead for the rest of the set. A kill and an ace from Member-Meneh sealed it for the Panthers — who took the frame 25-22, forcing a fifth set to 15 points.

The energy was high in Louisville as the two teams took the court to play the deciding set. The Cardinals took the first two points, but the Panthers responded with two points of their own. Neither side was willing to give an inch.

The Panthers held a slight advantage at 8-6, but Louisville went on a crucial run of four points which put them up by two points — only five away from taking the victory. The Panthers inched their way back to 13-13. A kill and an emphatic block spelled heartbreak for the Panthers and triumph for the Cardinals — who took the final set 15-13, knocking off Pitt in front of its delighted home fans.

The battle of ACC powerhouses lived up to its billing with both teams playing some of their best volleyball of the year. The Panthers ended up hitting .338 as a team behind a double-double from Member-Meneh and big performances from Ndee and graduate outside hitter Kayla Lund. 

While the loss puts Pitt in a hole for the ACC championship, there is still plenty of season left for the team to bounce back, starting with a rematch with the Cardinals on Nov. 24 at Fitzgerald Field House.

In the meantime, the Panthers will look to rebound from their loss to Louisville on Friday at Fitzgerald Field House against Wake Forest. The game will take place at 7 p.m. and stream on ACC Network Extra.

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