Panthers win five-set instant classic, dealing Louisville first ACC loss in two years


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Pitt Panthers celebrate their win against Louisville on Sunday.

By Richie Smiechowski, Assistant Sports Editor

Exactly two years ago, Louisville dropped a conference game to Pitt, losing to the Panthers in straight sets. Whatever happened that day lit a fire underneath the Cardinals, and they proceeded to win out in ACC play that year. 

They did it again in 2021 en route to a perfect regular season which included two wins against Pitt. Going into Sunday’s matchup against the Panthers, Louisville won each of its last 37 consecutive games in ACC play and had a chance to make it 38 on the two-year anniversary of its last conference loss in 2020.

Instead the No. 8 Panthers (19-2, 9-0 ACC) had other ideas, taking down the No. 2 Cardinals (18-2, 8-1 ACC) in five sets and ending Louisville’s two year ACC winning streak. The win is Pitt’s highest ranked in program history. 

According to Pitt head coach Dan Fisher, Sunday’s win means that the Panthers are headed in the right direction, one step closer to achieving their goals for this season. 

“I’m relieved because it was a great win for our program,” Fisher said. “I think it’s another step in our goal to host the first round, or the first two rounds [of the NCAA tournament].”

Against their highly-ranked counterpart, the Panthers needed to make a statement early and they did. After Louisville started the contest with consecutive errors, Pitt slowly depleted the Cardinals energy, jumping out to a 6-1 lead in the first. 

With every point, the packed Fitzgerald Field House home crowd seemingly got louder and louder. For the rest of the frame, the Panthers fed off of their energy while the Cardinals reeled, allowing the frenetic pace of play to eat them alive. 

Up 10-6 the Panthers went on another tear, rifling off six consecutive points and already putting the frame out of reach. The Cardinals managed a brief run with senior opposite Aiko Jones serving, but it was short lived and far too late. 

For the rest of the set, the Panthers cruised just as they had in the beginning. They had a response to just about every Cardinal attack, whether it was at the net or on the back row,  resulting in Louisville hitting a measly .028 while committing nine total errors. Pitt took the first frame 25-15 in a dominating fashion. 

The Panthers net presence was especially impressive in the first frame, especially considering their opponents possess the third best block in the nation. Pitt out-blocked the Cardinals 6-2 in the first while also making five less errors than Louisville. Graduate student right side hitter Courtney Buzzerio led the Panthers with five kills and three blocks.

According to graduate student middle blocker Serena Gray, the Panthers go into games expecting to get blocked by their opponents, and Louisville wasn’t going to be any different in that regard. 

“We get blocked more than any team in the ACC, so that wasn’t anything demoralizing to us,” Gray said. “We thought, yeah, we’ll just wear down their block, go high hands… I think we just prepared to use other things in our toolkit.”

Somehow in the second frame, things only got worse for the Cardinals. They jumped out to their first lead of the match at 2-0, but the Panthers immediately responded with their second 6-0 run of the day. 

With a four-point Pitt lead, the Cardinals kept it close for the next few points, but up 14-10 the Panthers began to pull away. They rode two four-point swings and a three-point swing down the stretch to an even more dominant 25-13 second set victory. 

While their defense showed out in the first, the Panther’s offense propelled them through the second. They hit .385 with just five attack errors in the second, while still holding the Cardinals to a miniscule -.111 hitting percentage. Buzzerio once again led the way with six kills in the frame, with Gray adding four of her own. 

After two abysmal sets, the Cardinals finally found their footing in the third set, going toe-to-toe with the blistering Panthers. The two sides split the first eight points of the frame before Pitt went on a 7-1 run, giving them an early advantage. 

Instead of hemorrhaging points like they had in the first two frames, the Cardinals bounced back from the early adversity, responding with a 3-0 run of their own. For a brief moment, the Panthers extended their lead to five points, but Louisville refused to go down, slowly chipping away at the Panthers lead until they put themselves up 23-22 late in the frame. 

Two points later, Louisville earned their first set point of the match, putting the pressure firmly on the Panthers. Pitt showed resilience, tying the match at 24, then at 25 two points later, but the Cardinals were too much to overcome, taking the third set 27-25 and pulling back within one. 

Gray, more so than any other player on the floor, was visibly angry and vocal about her team’s decline in performance. She said that it’s because she knows what her teammates are capable of and doesn’t want to see them play below their potential.

“I see these girls every day in practice doing things so much better than they do in games,” Gray said. “I’m like hey, I’ve seen you get that ball 100 times or like, I’ve seen you make that cover 100 times, do it. Where are you at right now?”

The Cardinals carried their momentum into the fourth and this time gave the Panthers everything they could handle early. Behind two aces Louisville went on an early 5-0 run, but the Panthers clawed back, tying the score at 10 thanks to three consecutive Cardinal errors. 

For the next few points the two sides went back and forth, with the Panthers eventually finding a two point advantage on consecutive kills. Down 16-14, the Cardinals showed why they’re the No. 2 ranked team in the country, going on a decimating 8-0 run and completely taking the air out of the home crowd. 

Up 22-16, reality began to set in — what looked like a surefire blowout for much of the first three sets was about to become a brand new match. A kill from graduate student outside hitter Claire Chaussee gave Louisville the 25-20 fourth set victory and sent the game to a decisive fifth set. 

With Pitt on the ropes, Fisher said he didn’t need to keep his team focused late, but rather being in control and playing the way they do best. 

“It was less about keeping them focused and more like we just got very frantic,” Fisher said. “It was more a matter of just trying to remind them of who they are and let’s get back to being us. You know if we lose because they make a great play, fine, but not because we were surprised that it was coming to us.”

Behind steady cheers from the Panther faithful, Pitt jumped out to its dream start, winning the first three points thanks to kills from sophomore outside hitter Julianna Dalton and Buzzerio. The Cardinals drew the set back to 3-2, but then the Panther attack exploded. They went on a 6-2 run spearheaded by an ace from defensive specialist Dillyn Griffin, which forced Louisville to call a timeout. 

Down 4-9, Louisville provided the fireworks volleyball fans expected out of the contest, rattling off six consecutive points and snatching back the lead. 

Then, Buzzerio took over. 

She rattled off her third kill of the shortened set, tying the frame at 10 apiece. Up 13-11 and with the crowd on their feet, Buzzerio rifled off three consecutive kills from the right side of the net, almost single handedly willing the Panthers to a 15-12 fifth set — and match — victory. 

Buzzerio was stellar all day, totalling 22 kills on .302 hitting, eight digs and five blocks. 22 kills marks her personal high as a Panther. Gray also finished with 15 kills on five blocks, while senior middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo tied a career high with eight blocks. 

Not only did the win break Louisville’s two-year long win streak, but it also gave the Panthers the longest active road win-streak in the NCAA at 11 games. The Panthers have a few days to recover before they head down to Wake Forest for their next match on Friday at 6:30 p.m.