No. 3 Pitt defeats Keystone State rival Penn State 3-1 in second round of NCAA Tournament

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Alex Mowrey/Pitt Athletics

Pitt sophomore outside hitter Valeria Vazquez Gomez (2), graduate student outside hitter Kayla Lund (23) and first-year setter Rachel Fairbanks (10) celebrate during Saturday evening’s game against Penn State University at the Petersen Events Center.

By Richie Smiechowski, Staff Writer

In the world of NCAA volleyball, there aren’t many heavyweights with more success historically than the Penn State Nittany Lions (21-10, 15-3 Big Ten).

They’re a program with seven total national championships including a stretch of four in a row from 2007 to 2010. They entered Saturday’s round of 32 matchup against No. 3 Pitt (27-3, 15-3 ACC) on a stellar run of 18 straight regional appearances, looking to make it 19.

In that span of consecutive appearances, the two archrivals have faced off numerous times early in the tournament, most recently in both 2017 and 2018. Each matchup ended the same way — with the Nittany Lions advancing to the next round of the tournament.

The Panthers were finally able to break the drought this year with a 3-1 victory against the Nittany Lions, the first time Pitt has ever defeated Penn State in the NCAA volleyball tournament.

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Head coach Dan Fisher said while the rivalry has turned mostly friendly on the volleyball side during his time at Pitt, it still means a lot to knock off a team with the history that Penn State does.

“The history of Pittsburgh and the schools, obviously it’s a big rivalry,” Fisher said. “Any time you knock a storied program out of the tournament whether it’s Nebraska or Penn State, it means a lot.”

The edition of the Keystone State rivalry started in a tightly contested, back-and-forth affair with neither team finding the momentum to pull away. Service errors cost the Panthers early in the first set, allowing the Nittany Lions to take a two-point advantage. Instead of allowing Penn State to pull away, an ace from graduate student outside hitter Kayla Lund and a .303 team hitting percentage helped to offset the errant serves and keep the Panthers level.

The Panthers showed a clear attacking advantage at 19-16, hitting over .400 in the set behind an impressive seven kills from senior outside hitter Leketor Member-Meneh. After 14 ties and six lead changes, the Panthers were finally able to find the momentum to take a four-point advantage late in the set on a 6-2 run to put them up 21-17.

It is the second match in a row where Member-Meneh got the ball rolling for the Panthers with high flying, seven-kill sets. According to Fisher, her fast starts are a great boost for the team, but he wants to make sure she doesn’t tire herself out.

“The last month of the season she’s been hitting over .300 and just really has taken her game to a new level,” Fisher said. “I actually thought she came out so juiced that we had to like give her a snack halfway through, she seemed like she was jumping out of the world the first couple of sets.”

Just as the Pitt faithful at the Petersen Events Center thought that their Panthers were about to pull away, the Nittany Lions found a rhythm, going on an impressive four-point swing and exploiting three Pitt errors to pull the game level.

In the early going neither team was willing to give an inch. No more than two points separated the two sides. The second half couldn’t have been any more opposite, and it was the Panthers who would capture the final decisive swing.

Their 4-1 run — anchored by kills from Member-Meneh, first-year setter Rachel Fairbanks and an ace from senior middle blocker and former Nittany Lion Serena Gray — put the finishing touches on a thrilling first set, 25-22 Panthers.

Gray, who would total six blocks in the match, said it was difficult in multiple different ways playing against her former team.

“There were two challenges, the physical challenge and the emotional challenge,” Gray said. “Whenever you’re playing against a group of people you love so much, it’s very difficult to want to go in with a ‘no mercy’ style.”

The Panthers started off the second set with tenacity, jumping out to a 6-3 lead before Penn State quickly answered back with two 3-0 runs to take a two-point advantage. Contrary to the normal areas of struggle for the Panthers, it was their finishing that put them behind early, despite great first ball contact from the back row. The Nittany Lions held them to a .211 hitting percentage early in the frame.

The final run would ultimately seal the Panthers’ second set fate, with the Nittany Lions 25-23 victory coming on a Member-Meneh attack error.

After a solid first set, Lund found her two-time ACC Player of the Year form in the second, tallying an unconscious nine kills in the second set. But her offense, combined with junior middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo’s late game efforts at the net, weren’t enough to give the Panthers an edge in the second frame.

Lund didn’t miss a point for the Panthers against the Nittany Lions after sitting out most of the last four games. She said that shaking some of the rust off in Friday night’s victory against UMBC certainly helped her massive performance on Saturday.

“[Fisher] wanted to throw me in there a little bit yesterday just so that my first time playing in a couple of matches wasn’t against Penn State,” Lund said. “Of course there are always regular nerves and I just had to kind of trust myself and put a lot of work into this.”

Runs were few and far between, but once again, the three-point swing proved to be the Nittany Lions’ key in timely situations. Down three and down two on separate occasions in the set, two three-point runs prevented the Panthers from getting much-needed traction. A four-point swing after being knotted at 12 put the Panthers on the back foot midway through the set.

The four-point advantage didn’t deter the Panthers from fighting back and they slowly managed to chip away at the lead behind clutch blocks and six Lund kills to tie the game at 20. Penn State would answer the comeback with two points of their own, but it was all Pitt down the home stretch.

Senior right-side hitter Chinaza Ndee, who had been quiet all game by her standards, came up with three massive kills right when the Panthers needed them most, powering Pitt to a monumental five-point run and 25-22 third set victory. Fisher acknowledged that it wasn’t her best game.

“She was really struggling through two sets, and I just kept thinking man, we really need Chi right now,” Fisher said. “And then all the sudden she had three kills in a row, so I think she just sticks with it and that’s the kind of competitor she is.”

The Nittany Lions had the clear advantage early in the fourth set, riding a five-point run to go up 11-7. Following the Penn State run, the Panthers would continually climb then fall, failing to get the lead back despite coming within one point of Penn State on six separate occasions.

After being down almost the entire set, the Panthers managed to pull level with the Nittany Lions at 21, but Penn State managed to take two in a row from the Panthers. A shocking, come-from-behind four-point swing anchored by an ace from sophomore outside hitter Valeria Vazquez Gomez and a clutch block on the final point then sent the Panthers over their archrival and into the Sweet Sixteen for just the second time in school history by a score of 25-23.

Pitt’s win was a total team effort – although Lund and Member-Meneh had the vast majority of the kills and each tallied a double-double, clutch blocks and serves were what ended up putting Pitt into the next round of the tournament.

The Panthers’ first matchup of the regional tournament will be against unranked Kansas, who upset No. 14 Creighton. Game time has yet to be determined.