No. 3 Pitt volleyball sweeps UMBC, will play Penn State in second round rivalry game

The+court+during+Friday+evening%E2%80%99s+game+against+University+of+Maryland%2C+Baltimore+County+at+the+Petersen+Events+Center.

Alex Mowrey/Pitt Athletics

The court during Friday evening’s game against University of Maryland, Baltimore County at the Petersen Events Center.

By Richie Smiechowski, Staff Writer

No. 3 Pitt (26-3, 15-3 ACC) knocked off UMBC (19-11, 12-0 America East) with a comfortable 3-0 sweep in the first round of the NCAA Volleyball Championship. It is the sixth year in a row that the Panthers have advanced past the first round of the tournament.

For the first time since the first set of the Georgia Tech game two weeks ago, First Team All-ACC graduate student outside hitter Kayla Lund saw significant playing time against the Retrievers. She played mostly in the back row in a defensive role, while being substituted on and off frequently. But Lund’s presence was more noticeable than in the Panthers’ previous three games, when she missed time due to an undisclosed injury.

Pitt Panthers celebrate during Friday evening’s game against University of Maryland, Baltimore County at the Petersen Events Center. (Alex Mowrey/Pitt Athletics)

Pitt head coach Dan Fisher said Lund being back in the lineup gave the Panthers a boost in both leadership and court presence.

“It’s just nice to have her back as an option,” Fisher said. “She’s a great leader on this team and her court presence certainly means a lot.”

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It appeared that the Panther’s needed to shake some nerves off in the opening set as they dropped the first two points before quickly getting them back on the following two. The two sides remained close until the Panthers began to pull away, taking a 17-11 lead midway through the set behind four kills on four attacks from junior middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo. She went on to finish the frame with five kills.

UMBC graduate student libero Loren Teter gave the Panthers’ attacking power props, but said sticking to what they do best was a big reason for their early success.

“Serving and passing is a big part of our game,” Teter said. “Obviously we’re a defensive team. We don’t expect to get every ball down like Pitt does. We’re not banging balls on the 10-foot line, and cheers to them for doing that, but you’ve got to stick to your strengths… We’re a team that believes you win volleyball matches between the points.”

Despite being down, the Retrievers didn’t back down to the highly ranked Panthers. They went on a 6-2 run following a timeout to bring the game back to 19-17. The two teams went back and forth over the final points of the set before Pitt finally got the clutch block they needed from senior right side hitter Chinaza Ndee and senior middle blocker Serena Gray. The final point gave the Panthers a tight 25-23 first set victory over the Retrievers.

Pitt graduate student rightside hitter Chinaza Ndee (5) prepares to hit a ball over the net at Friday evening’s game against University of Maryland, Baltimore County at the Petersen Events Center. (Alex Mowrey/Pitt Athletics)

Fisher applauded the Retrievers for their clean play in the first set, which put the Panthers under heavy duress early.

“Man, I thought in that first set they played about as well as I’ve seen them play all year,” Fisher said. “They really passed the ball great and hit for a good percentage and kind of gave us all we could handle.”

Senior outside hitter Leketor Member-Meneh had a dominant first set, leading the Panthers with seven kills in the first frame. The first-team All-ACC player has found some of her best form of the season at the perfect time.

While the fans at the Petersen Events Center were treated to a thrilling first set, the same couldn’t be said for the second, which featured the Panthers jumping out to a relentless 8-0 lead to begin the set. Nothing seemed to go the Retrievers’ way in the frame. 13 errors proved to be their demise as they dropped the second set 25-13.

Pitt’s defense was stellar in the second set, which only compounded the Retrievers’ mistakes further. The Panthers managed to hold UMBC to an abysmal -.115 hitting percentage in the second frame — a stark contrast to the first set which saw both teams well over the .300 mark.

In the third and final, UMBC gained back some of the momentum they had in the first frame. Although the two teams traded scores, an early three point advantage from Pitt grew as the set progressed, eventually ballooning to a 16-9 lead behind a five point run from the Panthers.

Just like the first set, UMBC refused to let the Panthers get comfortable, as they cut a seven point deficit to just three behind a 5-1 run. The comeback served as a wake-up call for the Panthers who then went on a 6-2 run of their own to close out the third and final set by a score of 25-18, completing the sweep and moving onto the second round.

The Panthers managed to put together an extremely well-rounded performance to finish off UMBC. On defense, they held the Retrievers to just a .132 hitting percentage and tallied 10 blocks, six of them coming from Gray. Offensively they were just as strong, notching a .345 hitting percentage for the match. Member-Meneh led the Panthers with 13 kills on .367 hitting.

First-ball contact was an issue for the Panthers in their last regular season game against Louisville. While it improved drastically tonight, Fisher still isn’t satisfied at the level his team is performing in that area.

“It’s still not good enough for me,” Fisher said. “I’d like to pass a little bit tomorrow, but I thought we got better at servicing as the game went on.”

The Panthers second round matchup will be against Keystone State arch-rival Penn State, who defeated Towson 3-1 just prior to the Pitt game to move on to the second round. Ndee remained focused on the match rather than the spectacle of the rivalry when asked if she was excited about playing the Nittany Lions tomorrow.

“[We’re] looking forward to it,” Ndee said. “They’re a good team, we’re always excited to play a good team and kind of see where we stack up… We’re ready.”

The second-round match against Penn State will take place once again at the Petersen Events Center at 7 p.m.. The game can be streamed on ESPN+.