Panthers overpower Florida in four sets, advance to third consecutive regional final


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Pitt sophomore setter Rachel Fairbanks (10) sets the ball at a game against Bowling Green State University at the Fitzgerald Field House in September.

By Richie Smiechowski, Assistant Sports Editor

On paper, No. 2 Pitt and No. 3 Florida’s playstyles are incredibly different. The Panthers play technically, anticipating their opponents blocks and relying on strong passing and defense to wear down hitters. 

Florida on the other hand, is all power. They serve aggressively, hit aggressively and if they miss a few times, so be it. They rely on the “boom or bust” mentality, which propelled the Gators to a victory against defending National Champions Wisconsin earlier this season

Luckily for the Panthers, they matched fire with fire, relying on graduate student outside hitter Courtney Buzzerio’s strong right arm which overpowered Florida’s defense. Behind her 19 kills, the Panthers outmatched the Gators, winning 3-1 and advancing to their third consecutive Elite Eight. 

For Pitt head coach Dan Fisher, Pitt’s postseason success over the last three years shows that his players are only gaining more experience in big games and he’s proud of what the program’s accomplished over the past few seasons. 

“We have players that have been in these moments,” Fisher said. “We just kind of have a mantra that we don’t know if we will win, but we know we can and so I think that belief is real that we can do it.”

Florida made their aggressive style apparent from the start, riding their powerful hitters to an early 6-1 run and an 8-5 lead in the first. Their relentless style caught the Panthers off guard in the beginning of the frame but Pitt responded, storming back with a four point run and taking an 11-10 lead. Buzzerio recorded six kills in the Panthers’ first 13 points of the match. 

From there, the Panthers’ attack was clinical. They found holes in the Gators block, and boosted their hitting percentage over .300 after struggling on attack for the beginning of the frame. Slowly Pitt extended its lead by as many as five points at 21-16.

Down and nearly out, the Gators found their second wind late in the set, putting together four consecutive points on two errors from their opponent. But the Panthers wouldn’t give in to the pressure, winning the final four points and closing out a hectic first frame, winning 25-20. 

Overall, the Panthers played a solid first set. The Panthers hit .303 and made just five attack errors, but Florida’s aggressiveness on serves was the story of the set. The Gators tallied a detrimental five service errors in the frame. 

The second frame started off strong, with both sides staying within two points of each other for the first part of the set. Tied at nine, the Panthers went on a roll, tallying five points in a row on two kills from graduate student outside hitter Cam Ennis and three Florida errors. 

From there, the Panthers held their ground. They maintained a significant advantage for most of the set, only slightly faltering in the set’s last moments. Up 23-21, graduate student middle blocker Serena Gray fired one to Florida’s back row. The officials initially called it out, but Gray and the rest of the Panthers immediately raised their arms in protest. Fortunately for the Panthers, the call was overturned, giving them a set point. Pitt finished off the frame on the next rally, winning 25-21.

Pitt started off the third set with all the momentum, immediately jumping out to a 4-1 lead spearheaded by another Florida service error. This time, the Gators responded better, using their potent offensive attack and bringing themselves within striking distance. 

Tied at nine, Florida took over the match, going on a 7-1 run thanks to six Panther attacking errors. The Gators hit a remarkable .619 for the set and never let their opponent get close, eventually running away with the 25-17 victory. The Panthers had their worst offensive set of the tournament, hitting a miniscule -.030 in the third with ten attack errors.

According to Fisher, although the team struggled offensively in the set, he thought that they bounced back well towards the end, helping them stay strong going into the fourth. 

“We made our most attacking errors in that third set. Some of them were long, and some were just out of bounds,” Fisher said. “I think we started out struggling with serve-receive, but actually, even though we didn’t win that set I thought by the end we’d really settled in with our passing which I think helped us going forward.”

Once again, Pitt quickly grabbed the momentum in the fourth set, jumping out in front 4-1 on two kills and a block from Buzzerio. And just as the other sets unfolded, the Gators chipped away at the lead and drew level with the Panthers. 

Tied at ten, this time the Panthers made the mid-set run, firing off four points in a row and taking a commanding lead. The two teams traded points the rest of the set, with Florida occasionally managing to inch closer to Pitt. But each time the Gators mounted a comeback, the Panthers would go on a run of their own. 

Up 24-20, the Panthers were on the verge of advancing, but Florida again wouldn’t go quietly. Senior outside hitter Marina Markova fired off two consecutive kills, bringing the Gators within one and forcing Fisher to call timeout.

Up just 24-23 and on their third match point in a row, the Panthers finally got the game-winning sideout on a kill by Buzzerio. The Panthers rebounded when it mattered, hitting .286 with just two attack errors in the 25-23 third set victory.

Sophomore setter Rachel Fairbanks played a tremendous final set for the Panthers, notching two aces and multiple timely kills and assists. Graduate student middle blocker Serena Gray certainly played her part in the middle, contributing five blocks in the match. 

Next up for the Panthers is No. 1 Wisconsin, who defeated No. 4 Penn State Thursday night. The Badgers are the defending National Champions and have won 21 consecutive matches. First serve is at 8 p.m. EST in Madison. The game airs on ESPNU.