‘We just found a way’: Pitt volleyball upsets No. 1 Wisconsin to advance to second consecutive Final Four


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Pitt volleyball coach Dan Fisher yells during Pitt’s game against BYU in the second round of the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament in the Petersen Events Center on Dec. 3.

By Richie Smiechowski, Assistant Sports Editor

In the scope of NCAA volleyball, the Big 10 sets the bar. Since 2002, a team from the conference has made the Final Four every single season and it boasts the reigning National Champions, Wisconsin.

The ACC, on the other hand, is relatively new to the volleyball scene, with only one team qualifying for the NCAA Final Four until last year. Now, for the second season in a row, it will have two teams heading to Omaha for the NCAA national semifinal. 

Just a few hours after No. 1 Louisville knocked off No. 3 Oregon, No. 2 Pitt (31-3, 17-1 ACC) traveled to Madison, Wisconsin and knocked off the No. 1 Badgers (28-4, 19-1 ACC) in five thrilling sets in front of a raucous home crowd. The win sends the Panthers to their second consecutive Final Four.

According to Pitt head coach Dan Fisher, the result wasn’t due to what the team did well or didn’t do well, but about the toughness they showed tonight and all season long. 

“I don’t know how much I can tell you about the X’s and O’s, we just found a way,” Fisher said. “I’m very proud of this team… I think we just showed a lot of heart in some tough moments.”

Behind outstanding play from their middles, the Panthers got off to a terrific start, quickly quieting the raucous Wisconsin crowd. Senior middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo recorded two kills and a block early, propelling Pitt to an early 8-3 lead and forcing the Badgers to call a timeout.

The Panthers steadily maintained control after their hot start, playing strong defense against their hard-hitting opponents. Two three point swings in rapid succession extended Pitt’s lead and a lucky ace from graduate student right side hitter Courtney Buzzerio extended Pitt’s lead to a commanding seven points. 

Up 19-13 and on the verge of a massive first set victory, everything started to go wrong for the Panthers. The Badgers made a controversial but successful challenge, bringing them within five points of Pitt. The reversal deflated the Panthers and they dropped the next three points, bringing the match to within two points. 

Pitt took the next two points on kills from graduate student middle blocker Serena Gray and Buzzerio and it looked for a second like Pitt was ready to cruise down the stretch.

Then, things really fell apart. 

Pitt committed four errors in a row, forcing Fisher to call a timeout at 21-21. With the deafening Badger crowd on their feet, Wisconsin showed why it’s the defending National Champions, taking a two point lead on back-to-back kills from sophomore middle blocker Anna Smrek. 

Despite their hot streak, the hosts faltered for a moment, dropping two points on two errors. But before long, the Badgers completed their monumental comeback, forcing set point and quickly taking the first frame 25-23. 

The first set made it abundantly clear that the rest of the match was destined for a dogfight, and the second frame didn’t disappoint. The Badgers quickly jumped out to a 3-0 lead but the Panthers wouldn’t lay down, stringing together five consecutive points and taking the lead. 

The two sides went back and forth for the majority of the set, punctuating every other point with long, drawn out volleys. The players put their everything into each point, diving for several balls and moving at a frantic pace, trying to gain an edge over their opponent.

But as the set wore on, Pitt’s offense hit a stride. They slowly held then built their lead against the Badgers formidable block. Up 17-14, the Panthers put together three timely points in a row. Three points later, they were up 22-15 and mere moments away from tying the match. 

Still, the Badgers stayed in the match, winning four of the next five points and forcing three Pitt set points. But it was too little too late, and junior outside hitter Valeria Vazquez Gomez finished off the Panthers 25-21 second set victory. 

Statistically, the Panthers were stellar in the second set. They hit .357, made just two attack errors and made 21 digs for the second consecutive set. But more importantly, the Panthers showed their resilience, bouncing back from a heartbreaking first set defeat and leveling the match. 

Both teams came out strong in the third set, trading points early in the frame. Down 6-4, the Panthers went on an offensive tear, winning five points in a row behind three kills and an ace from sophomore setter Rachel Fairbanks. 

Once again, the Panthers maintained a steady lead. But up 13-10 they faltered, committing three consecutive errors and bringing the Badgers back into the set. Wisconsin held the lead until 17-16, but Pitt got it right back on a three point run on three consecutive kills. 

The two sides traded the next six points, doing everything they could to gain the one set edge. Once again, the Panthers’ offense prevailed, notching another three point kill and bringing the set to a 24-20 set point. Buzzerio finished off the set two points later, giving Pitt a decisive 2-1 match lead. 

The Badgers went back to their national powerhouse form in the fourth set, immediately halting Pitt’s momentum with a 5-1 run to start the frame. The Panthers got within one a few points later, but another run from Wisconsin put them up 12-8.

For the rest of the frame, the Panthers won a few points sporadically, but Wisconsin largely dominated, hitting .387 for the set while holding Pitt to a .158 hitting percentage. The Badgers went on to win the fourth set 25-19 and force a winner-take-all fifth frame. 

With their season on the line, the Panthers came out flying in the fifth set, immediately going on a 5-1 run after losing the first point of the set thanks to an impressive serving display from junior outside hitter Cat Flood. 

A few points later, the Panthers extended their lead to 7-2 and then 11-6, just four points away from completing the upset. 

Then, the Badgers took over. 

Kill after kill, Wisconsin gained momentum and the Panthers just couldn’t get a side out. By the time the onslaught was over, the Badgers had won six in a row and taken a 12-11 lead.

Instead of quitting when the match got close, the Panthers fought. They finally broke Wisconsin’s serve on a kill by Buzzerio, tying the set at 12. Wisconsin won the next point on a Pitt attack error, but the Panthers once again showed their resilience. 

Behind Buzzerio and Vazquez Gomez, the Panthers swept the match’s final three points, sending the Pitt bench storming on the court in celebration. 

For the Panthers, Buzzerio once again led the team in kills with 18, and Nwokolo played one of her best matches of the year with 12 kills and three blocks. As a team, the Panthers set a NCAA tournament program record with 88 digs and had eight crucial aces in the match. 

Following the upset, the Panthers will move on to play conference rival and familiar foe No. 1 Louisville in the Final Four. The game is next Thursday in Omaha, Nebraska at a to be determined time.