Slow start dooms No. 3 Pitt volleyball in marquee match with No. 1 Louisville

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Hannah Wilson | Staff Photographer

Serena Gray (21) celebrates during the Panthers volleyball game vs. UVA at the Fitzgerald Field House on Sept. 29.

By Richie Smiechowski, Staff Writer

In front of a raucous crowd of 3,052 fans packed into the Fitzgerald Field House, No. 3 Pitt ended the regular season on a disappointing note, falling 3-1 to undefeated No. 1 Louisville. This matchup was the Panthers’ last chance to further build their resume prior to the NCAA Tournament selection show on Sunday.

Coming into the game, Louisville (27-0, 17-0 ACC) was one of only two teams to defeat the Panthers (26-3, 15-3 ACC) this season. The other was Georgia Tech, which Pitt managed to beat in its second contest of the year last Friday. Apart from solidifying their chances of hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Panthers also played to keep their hopes alive of sharing the ACC championship with the Cardinals.

One notable absence for the Panthers over the last three games has been graduate student outside hitter Kayla Lund, who was taken out of the Georgia Tech game in the first set with an apparent injury. She was in uniform on the bench but did not play against Louisville. Pitt has not detailed the extent of her injury.

Head coach Dan Fisher has been forced to rotate players in and out of the lineup more frequently to fill the void an All-American like Lund leaves. When playing, Lund almost never comes off the court, making the task of finding her replacement that much more difficult.

With or without Lund, the Panthers needed to play their best volleyball to knock off the No. 1 team in the country, and they came out of the gate strong in the first frame. They stayed neck-in-neck with the Cardinals and even found themselves up two points midway through the set.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, Louisville found its country-best form and promptly went on a 7-1 run to take a commanding 19-14 lead in the first set. The rest of the frame was all Cardinals, who took the game with a decisive 25-19 victory. Despite a valiant 5-kill effort from fifth year senior right side hitter Chinaza Ndee, the Panthers couldn’t hold a torch to the Cardinal attack — who hit a whopping .414 for the set. Four of Louisville’s five attackers finished the frame hitting over .400.

The second set was almost identical to the first in terms of point swings, but it was a statistical nightmare for the Panthers. Once again, they kept themselves in control early, holding a small lead midway through the set. 

But just like set one, the Cardinals went on a devastating 6-1 run, giving them a substantial lead that they’d never relinquish. The Cardinals would end up taking the set 25-19, leaving the Panthers in a massive hole at home.

The scoreboard doesn’t tell the whole story for the Panthers — the first two sets were some of the most underwhelming they played all year. Louisville dominated Pitt on both sides of the ball, hitting over .400 in each of the first two frames while holding the Panthers to a measly .162 hitting percentage in the second set.

The Panthers also accumulated 10 attack errors and six service errors over the two games. It wasn’t the quantity, but the timing of their mistakes that proved most costly. 

Each time the Panthers looked to have the momentum, an untimely service error would give the edge straight back to Louisville. Passing was also an issue for Pitt throughout the contest, which resulted in the Panthers having to scramble for decent attacking chances.

Luckily for the Panthers, their momentum swing finally came in the third set. The two teams were even early before the Panthers built a solid three-point lead halfway through the frame. Instead of allowing Louisville to go on a run, Pitt went on a decisive six point run to send the game to set point. The final straw for the Cardinals was a service error, which gave Pitt a 25-17 set win.

Even though the Panthers looked bad during the first two sets, they turned in an impressive third frame. They minimized errors and held Louisville to a .212 hitting percentage, while hitting a staggering .452 themselves. Defensively they had seven blocks, which showed as much authority at the net as they have all season.

One standout performance from the third set came from first-year libero Emmy Klika. Although she hasn’t played much this season for the Panthers, she provided a spark of defense —  showing off some flashy digs in the third set. 

Another bright spot was first year setter Rachel Fairbanks. Setters aren’t particularly known for their high-flying attacking abilities, but Fairbanks played the role of the “Swiss Army Knife” and tallied eight kills on .727 hitting in the match, while also notching 12 assists. 

The fourth set saw the earliest swing of the match with the Panthers riding high off of the momentum from the prior set. Down 4-1, the Panthers went on a 9-0 run — giving them control early in the set. Despite the slow start, the Cardinals showed their resilience and shortly thereafter went on a blistering 8-1 run of their own.

Down two points in the fourth set, a moment of controversy occurred. A return from the Louisville attack appeared to go long but was called in by the line judge on the left side. Fisher immediately indicated that he wanted to challenge the call, causing the officials to look over the replays. 

After considerable deliberation, the officials determined that there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the call, leaving Fisher livid and forcing the Panthers to attempt a three point comeback as opposed to just one.

The two teams traded points to 23-21 following the challenge, but Louisville took the last two points of the game, resulting in a heartbreaking 25-21 fourth frame defeat for the Panthers. The four-set loss gave Louisville sole possession of the 2021 ACC championship.

Although the regular season is officially over for the Panthers, there is still everything to play for. The NCAA tournament begins on Dec. 2, and Pitt is still in control of its National Championship aspirations. The Panthers will find out whether or not they will host a regional tournament during the selection show at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday. It will air on ESPNU.

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