Pitt defeats No. 6 Purdue, advances to first Final Four in program history

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Image courtesy of Alex Mowrey/Pitt Athletics

Pitt volleyball players celebrate after defeating Purdue and earning a spot in the Final Four of the NCAA women’s volleyball championships.

By Richie Smiechowski, Staff Writer

Pitt volleyball has become a national powerhouse in its nine years under head coach Dan Fisher.

It has won ACC championships, been ranked nationally for countless weeks, and last year broke into the Elite Eight for the first time ever.

The only thing they haven’t done in his tenure? Win a regional championship.

The No. 3 Panthers (29-3, 15-3 ACC) had their second opportunity in two years to reach that new milestone against No. 6 Purdue (26-6, 15-5 Big Ten) — and they finally broke through, defeating the Boilermakers 3-1 in a thrilling regional final.

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Fisher said he never expected the program to have this much success, especially considering the level of coaching he came from.

“When I first got here, I was just coming from a NAIA school,” Fisher said. “I never dreamed of being in this moment, I was just focused on getting us in the NCAA tournament first. By far exceeding my own expectations, this group has really been an amazing group to work with.”

The Panthers allowed Purdue to jump out to a quick 3-0 lead on consecutive kills from the Boilermaker attack. But they wasted no time getting right back into contention, using a three-point run of their own behind two blocks and a kill from senior middle blocker Serena Gray.

Down 12-10, the Boilermakers showcased their attacking prowess, going on an impressive four point run and upping their hitting percentage for the set to .571 in the process.

As fast as Purdue retook the lead, the Panthers snatched it right back with a three-point swing, capped off by an acrobatic effort from graduate student outside hitter Kayla Lund which set up senior outside hitter Leketor Member-Meneh for the spike kill.

Leketor Member-Meneh (13) jumps to spike the ball during the Pitt vs. Purdue matchup of the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament. (Image courtesy of Alex Mowrey/Pitt Athletics)

Behind a complete team effort, the Panthers managed to keep the momentum and slowly build their lead over the remainder of the set. Both teams hit over .450 for the set, but a 10-kill set from Gray and Member-Meneh proved to be too much for the Boilermakers to handle. An attack error from Purdue brought the first set to a close with the Panthers taking a 25-20 victory.

Pitt combined for a remarkable 19 kills on .571 hitting in the first frame. First-year setter Rachel Fairbanks, who’s come on strong for the Panthers down the stretch, showcased her tools with two kills and 10 assists for the set.

The Boilermakers responded well, putting together a four-point run to take another early lead.

Down three points early in the set, a four-point swing spearheaded by Member-Meneh’s second ace pushed the Panthers to an 8-9 lead and forced the Boilermakers to call a timeout.

There was no room separating the two teams after Purdue’s timeout — they went back and forth, constantly in a tie or with one side taking a slight one or two point lead. One of the frame’s defining moments came at 17-17, when the Boilermakers appeared to spike their return into the net, but the officials kept the play alive. A livid Fisher pulled out his green review card and after just a few moments of deliberation, the line judge signified a reversed call, which gave the Panthers a crucial one-point lead late in the set.

Right when Purdue needed it the most, they managed to break the back-and-forth affair late in the frame with a three-point run, silencing the crowd and forcing a match point at 24-22.

The Boilermakers managed to turn around a 28-27 Panther advantage with a three-point run, taking the second set 30-28, which leveled the match at one set apiece. Despite having a stellar set, it was a Member-Meneh attack error that was the final blow against the Panthers.

Fisher said the experience his team has gathered over the year from playing tough opponents helped them refocus and stay driven to win the next set, despite how the previous one ended.

“I think this team believes,” Fisher said. “We’ve had a tough schedule, we’ve been in tough moments all year, I think our experience has a lot to do with it and just the belief in each other, it’s just a gritty team.”

For a team that had just taken a heartbreaking second set loss, the Panthers managed to come out of the gate in the third with no shortage of firepower, capitalizing on three consecutive Boilermaker attack errors to take a 4-0 lead.

The Panthers managed to extend their lead to 9-3, but the Boilermakers refused to fold, cutting the Panthers lead to just one midway through the set. Purdue’s comeback proved to be short lived, as the Panthers scored six in a row to increase their advantage to an insurmountable seven points.

Purdue managed to put together a three-point run of their own down the stretch, but a service error followed by kills from Gray and Lund gave the Panthers the 25-20 third set victory.

The game was defined by long points and diving saves, with each side refusing to quit. They went back and forth to start but errors caught up with the Boilermakers, who had already committed six with the Panthers up 15-11.

Victory became clearer and clearer for the Panthers with every point, who found themselves up eight points at 19-11 — just six points away from advancing to Columbus, Ohio.

A Member-Meneh ace brought the packed house at Fitzgerald Field House to their feet for region-point at 24-14. One final spike from Gray closed out a historic victory for the Panthers, who took the fourth and final set 25-15 and moved  onto their first ever Final Four.

Lund, who has been a key part in the Panthers rise to national dominance, was emotional and grateful to be a part of this year’s run.

“It was obviously very emotional,” Lund said. “All kinds of emotion right, like the happy tears, maybe even some pissed off tears that proved that we could be here… I’m so excited for the girls and so excited for the coaching staff… they put so much into us as players and for me to be here while it happens is obviously amazing, but I’m really happy for the coaching staff, they deserve this so freaking much.”

Member-Meneh, Gray and Fairbanks provided some of their best performances of the year on Saturday night, at a time when their team needed it most. Member-Meneh put up a massive 21 kills on .383 hitting to lead all players. Gray added 14 kills on .583 hitting along with six blocks to anchor the Panthers at the net. And Fairbanks, in just her first season with the Panthers, put up a 10-kill, 28-assist double-double — staggering numbers from a setter.

Like her head coach, Gray never expected the success this team would have when she decided to transfer from Penn State, nor was it really what she was looking for.

“If I’m being honest, when I was transferring, I was not thinking, yeah I want to go to a Final Four,” Gray said. “I just wanted to develop myself into a player, I wanted my teammates and coaches to kind of facilitate that.”

The next step of the journey for this year’s Panthers will be to head to Columbus, Ohio, for the Final Four. They will face the winner of a No. 2 Texas and No. 10 Nebraska matchup in the national semifinal. The game will take place on Saturday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus and air on ESPN, with a gametime to be announced.