Pitt volleyball off to hot start in ACC play, beats UNC and NC State


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Pitt graduate student middle blocker Serena Gray (21) prepares to spike the ball during Sunday’s game against NC State at Fitzgerald Field House.

By Richie Smiechowski, Assistant Sports Editor

After a somewhat up-and-down start to their season, No. 10 Pitt opened its conference schedule with a weekend double-header at Fitzgerald Field House. The Panthers managed to take care of UNC and NC State with relative ease, knocking off both opponents in four sets.

Fresh off of a top-five win against Ohio State, the Panthers (11-2, 2-0 ACC) started their ACC weekend on Friday against UNC (9-4, 1-1 ACC). The Panthers have dominated the Tar Heels since joining the ACC, winning each of their last seven contests going back to 2015.

The contest began sluggishly for the surging Panthers as they found themselves down 6-3 early in the first frame. Strong defense from the Tar Heels and a weak attacking effort from the Panthers allowed UNC to maintain a lead for almost the entirety of the first frame.

Down 14-10, the Panthers began to claw back thanks to blocks from graduate student middle blocker Serena Gray and sophomore outside hitter Julianna Dalton. Graduate student right side hitter Courtney Buzzerio added two kills midway through the set to draw the Panthers within one of the Tar Heels.

Down 16-14 in the first, graduate student middle blocker Sabrina Starks found her groove, notching two crucial kills that spearheaded a three-point run for the Panthers. The swing to 17-16 gave the Panthers their first lead since going up 2-1 very early in the first frame.  

Tied at 18, the two sides alternated two-point swings, refusing to let their opponent pull away. Up 22-21, UNC made a critical service error, nearly pushing the Panthers to set point. Despite being down late, they refused to come back, notching a block and an ace to make up for the errant serve just two points prior.

Tied at 23 late in the first, the Panther attack finally took over the set, first on a kill from senior middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo to force match point. Dalton finally put the back-and-forth set to rest, logging a decisive kill and giving the Panthers a tight 25-23 first set victory.

After hitting a measly .091 in the first set, Pitt offense bounced back in the second, taking a quick 11-4 lead thanks to three consecutive kills. The Panthers maintained their early advantage for the rest of the set, leading by as many as nine points late in the frame.

Down 19-10, the Tar Heels managed to string together four consecutive points, but it was too little too late, and the Panthers cruised to a 25-17 second set victory. Pitt hit a much-improved .316 in the second, only committing four errors in the process.

Despite being down 2-0 and on the brink of defeat, the Tar Heels wouldn’t go down easy. They held a slight advantage for much of the third frame, refusing to let the Panthers draw level. They stayed clean where Pitt couldn’t commit zero service errors while hitting a game high .357.

The Panthers hung around for much of the set, even tying the frame at 14-14. But it was all Tar Heels down the stretch, as they never let the Panthers hold a lead in the set. UNC comfortably took the third frame 25-20, forcing a fourth set.

Pitt picked a good time to put together their best defensive set of the day, holding UNC to a remarkably low .069 hitting percentage in the final frame. The Panthers also tallied 16 kills in the fourth set and used the momentum of multiple three and four set swings to take a 14-11 advantage midway through the set.

From there the Panthers went on their most explosive tear of the night, ripping off six consecutive points to put the set out of reach. They would close out their 3-1 victory, easily taking the fourth set 25-16. Buzzerio topped the score sheet for the Panthers, but Gray put on a masterclass in efficiency, notching 10 kills on just 12 attacks.

Pitt built on the momentum from their last set against UNC, laying the hammer down against NC State (7-6, 1-1 ACC) with an 8-1 run to start the match. The Wolfpack committed four attack errors in the run and looked to be out of the set before it even began.

The Panthers extended their lead to a commanding 14-4, but suddenly NC State woke up, putting together several short runs and eventually bringing the set back to 21-20. They took their first lead of the frame at set point, finding themselves up at 24-23 and putting the pressure back on Pitt.

Despite relinquishing their early lead, the Panthers fought back thanks to a block from Buzzerio and an NC State attack error, giving them their first set point of the frame. The two sides went back and forth in extra points, trading attack errors and set points before Nwokolo fired off two consecutive kills and saved the Panthers from a monumental collapse. Pitt ended up winning the exhausting first set 31-29.

NC State was clearly depleted following the first set, dropping back a few points early before the Panthers cranked out their second 8-0 run of the match to blow the set open 19-17. Gray had a massive second frame, going a perfect six-for-six on attacks. Starks also recorded her 400th career block during the set. The Wolfpack went on a late four-point run, but never came close to matching the Panthers’ incredible .469 hitting percentage in the 25-13 second frame rout.

The Wolfpack incredibly stormed back in the third set, staying within striking distance of the Panthers, who held a lead for most of the frame. Down three points midway through the set, NC State eventually leveled at 18-18 before powering their way to a 25-22 third set win. The Wolfpack defense just slightly outmatched the Panthers, holding Pitt to a .116 hitting percentage.

Both sides geared up for a tight fourth set, which again saw the Panthers jump out to an early 10-4 lead thanks to their third 8-0 run of the match. Yet again, the Panthers couldn’t hold the lead and allowed the Wolfpack to slowly creep back into the match.

Up 22-20, kills from Gray and Buzzerio brought the Panthers to a 24-21 match point. The Wolfpack brought the deficit back to just one at the Panther’s set point, but a kill from Gray finally ended the set at 25-23 in favor of the Panthers, giving them the 3-1 victory.

The Panthers look to continue their perfect start in ACC play on Wednesday against UVA in Charlottesville. The match starts at 8 p.m. and will air on ACCN.