Panther volleyball dominates at BYU Invitational


TPN File Photo

Graduate middle blocker Sabrina Starks (11) celebrates after beating Howard in the first round of the NCAA volleyball tournament in 2019.

By Brian Sherry, Staff Writer

The No. 10 Panthers dominated at the BYU invitational this weekend, posting three wins against top non-conference opponents. The Panthers capped off the weekend with an upset win against No. 7 BYU, earning them the invitational title just a week after their opening game loss to No. 12 San Diego in Texas.

The Panthers (5-1,0-0 ACC) started the weekend with a back and forth battle against Cincinnati (1-5, 0-0 AAC) on Friday. The Bearcats struck first, winning the first set 25-20. Cincinnati continued its attack for most of the second set until the Panthers went on a 6-1 run to tie the match at one apiece. The Panthers’ defense was stellar in the second set, particularly at the net. Senior Chiamaka Nwokolo stymied the Bearcats’ persistent offense, posting four blocks in the frame.

The two teams went back and forth in the third set, battling for an edge in the match. The Bearcats narrowly came away with the frame, sneaking by the Panthers 25-23. With the match on the line, the Panthers capitalized on an early 6-0 run, winning the fourth set and sending the match to a decisive fifth set. 

The Panthers stepped up in the deciding set, beating the Bearcats 15-5 to secure the match victory. Redshirt junior outside hitter Valeria Vazquez Gomez shined under the pressure in the final set, notching three kills when it mattered most. Sophomore Julianna Dalton also continued her dominant start to the season, leading the Panthers with 20 points in the closely contested win. 

The Panthers built off of their strong Friday performance with a 3-0 sweep against Utah State (3-2, 0-0 MWC). Dalton and graduate student middle blocker Serena Gray led the Panthers on offense with eight kills each

Pitt played a clean first set, only allowing one error as a team. But the Aggies didn’t back down, leading for most of the first set. The Panthers ultimately surged ahead to take a 25-21 victory and an early 1-0 lead. The Aggies continued to put up a resilient fight for much of the second set, until the Panthers found their momentum following a 9-2 run to win the set 25-18. 

Gray caught fire on both sides of the ball in the third set, posting five kills, two blocks and three digs. Pitt also dominated late, scoring 11 of the final 14 points. The Panthers cruised into a 25-15 victory to secure the match and the sweep.  

Pitt’s highest ranked win of the weekend came on Saturday with a 3-1 victory over host team BYU (5-1, 0-0 WCC), snapping the Cougar’s 30 match home win streak. The No. 7 Cougars were undefeated coming into Saturday’s matchup. Notably, the BYU volleyball program recently came under fire after a fan hurled racial slurs at Duke players in a matchup last week, drawing national attention. 

The Panthers capitalized early with a dominant 25-19 victory in the opening frame. Pitt’s defense fired on all cylinders early, with Nwokolo and company posting four blocks to start the match. The second and third sets proved more difficult for the Panthers. BYU quickly rebounded after dropping the first set, and led for much of the second. But the Panthers rallied, narrowly winning the frame 25-22. The Cougars finally got the better of the Panthers in the third set, cruising to a much-needed 25-19 win. 

BYU errors and crucial back-to-back kills from Dalton would prove too much to overcome for the Cougars. Pitt ultimately stopped BYU’s comeback, rallying to a 25-21 in the deciding frame. The performance earned the Panthers their first win over a ranked opponent on the year and a tournament victory to boot. 

The path for the Panthers only gets tougher as the season progresses, with matchups against No. 8 Ohio State and No. 3 Louisville looming.

The Panthers will look to continue the success at home next week, as they will host the Panther Challenge Invitational. Pitt will face off against American, Bowling Green and Towson. Competition starts at 1 p.m. on Friday at the Fitzgerald Field House.