Pitt’s National Championship bid ends with loss to Nebraska in Final Four


AP Photo/Paul Vernon

Pitt’s Leketor Member-Meneh, left, and teammate Serena Gray react following a semifinal loss to Nebraska in the NCAA women’s college volleyball tournament Friday in Columbus, Ohio.

By Richie Smiechowski, Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Less than one week ago, Pitt volleyball was on top of the world.

It had just knocked off No. 6 Purdue in a dominating fashion to advance to its first National Semifinal in program history. The team celebrated their monumental victory, but recognized that their job was far from over.

In the heart of Columbus, Ohio, the four best teams in the country converged at college volleyball’s biggest stage to compete for a shot at the national title. As No. 3 Pitt’s (30-3, 15-3 ACC) contest vs. No. 10 Nebraska (25-7, 15-4 Big Ten) crossed over from Thursday night into Friday morning, the Panthers’ hopes of its first National Championship slipped away, as they fell to the Cornhuskers 3-1 in front of a packed house at Nationwide Arena.

Head coach Dan Fisher said while the loss hurts, it doesn’t take anything away from what he and his team built during the 2021 season.

“It stings because we felt like we could have played a little bit better,” Fisher said. “But what hasn’t stung at all is having spent time with this team all year. I’m proud to be associated with this team and our City.”

Junior outside hitter Chiamaka Nwokolo and sophomore outside hitter Valeria Vazquez Gomez got the Panthers off to their dream start, using a kill and an ace to jump out to a quick 2-0 lead. The Panthers strung a few more points together, carrying the momentum to a decisive 7-3 advantage.

A four-point run backed by impressive service play drew the Cornhuskers level at seven, but the momentum didn’t last long — Nebraska errors combined with potent attacking play propelled the Panthers to a game-breaking 8-1 run.

After Nebraska managed to cut the deficit to two points, the Panthers went on yet another tear — one that the Cornhuskers had no chance of clawing back from. Balanced performances from the Panthers hitters, resulting in a .483 hitting percentage, lead the Panthers to a dominant 25-16 first set victory.

Neither team managed to find an advantage early in the second, but service errors and mistakes on first touches kept Nebraska slightly ahead. At 7-6, the Cornhuskers decided they’d had enough and proceeded to outplay the Panthers in every aspect of the game. Apart from an already impressive .440 hitting percentage, the Cornhuskers front notched four blocks and stifled the Panther attack.

Apart from Nebraska’s strong performance, the Panthers didn’t do much to help their cause in the second set, especially in the serve game. They totaled a critical five service errors in the set and weren’t able to string together more than two consecutive points at any point in the game. In a tale of two games, Nebraska leveled the match at one behind a 25-17 second set victory.

According to Fisher, although the service errors stood out as a major shortcoming on the stat sheet, that didn’t tell the complete story of the Panthers’ struggles offensively.

“The service errors were a factor,” Fisher said. “But mostly I thought that we just didn’t have a great night offensively. Not one of our pins hit over .200. That’s the first time ever, I think, in the last couple of years. I don’t remember a game like that. It’s hard to beat a team without at least one of your pins having a pretty good night.”

Mistakes again cost both teams in the third. Six of the set’s first 11 points came by way of error, and seven of Nebraska’s first 10 points came on Panther errors. Despite the sloppy play, the frame was closely contested through the beginning and middle stages. Up 13-11, the Panthers looked poised to finally pull away from the Huskers, but a three-point swing in the Cornhuskers’ favor flipped the advantage back to the Big Red.

Down one late in the set, the Cornhuskers took complete control of the game, riding a decisive 7-1 run to match point. From there it took just two more points to finish off the sputtering Panthers, and the Cornhuskers were just one set away from a National Championship berth with a 25-20 victory.

Nebraska immediately put the Panthers on their heels with a 3-0 run to begin the fourth set. The Panthers responded with two of their own, but another three-point swing put the Cornhuskers up 9-5 early. Over the next 12 points, the two sides traded bows, neither managing to put together consecutive points.

Down four points and with a National Championship berth on the line, the Panthers refused to quit — overcoming the deficit to draw level at 20 and bring the Pitt faithful to their feet. But just as quickly as the comeback started, errors killed any life left. Back-to-back attack errors put the Cornhuskers up by two, and just three points later, the Nebraska fans all rose to their feet for match point.

Nebraska’s 10th block of the game put the finishing touches on a remarkable defensive performance and earned the team a spot in the National Championship game against Big Ten rival, No. 4 Wisconsin. 

Graduate student outside hitter Kayla Lund said the Panthers’ own mistakes contributed to their poor offensive showing more so than Nebraska’s defense.

“I think their defense didn’t affect us as much as it shows,” Lund said. “I think it was our offense that struggled a lot. Whether it was setting, whether it was out-of-system setting or anybody else setting and our hitters not being in rhythm and getting to the ball.”

The 3-1 loss brought the Panther’s historic NCAA Tournament run to an end. While a loss isn’t the way the Panthers wanted their season to end, fifth-year senior right-side hitter Chinaza Ndee is grateful for everything the program gave her during her time at Pitt.

“I think I’ll be most grateful for all the good people that I have in my life now,” Ndee said. “Like this has just been a place where I’m just — I’m just surrounded by good people every day, and like that is priceless … So, I’m going to be grateful for that.”