Slow starts doom No. 2 Pitt in Final Four, drop to No. 1 Louisville in five sets


AP Photo/John S. Peterson

Pittsburgh’s Rachel Fairbanks (10) spikes the ball against Louisville’s Claire Chaussee (9) and Amaya Tillman (25) during the semifinals of the NCAA volleyball tournament, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022 in Omaha, Neb.

By Richie Smiechowski, Sports Editor

OMAHA, Neb. — For the second straight season, No. 2 Pitt volleyball experienced Final Four heartbreak. This year they dropped in five sets to No. 1 Louisville, just missing out on program and ACC history. Slow starts in every set eventually caught up to the Panthers who lost the fifth set 15-2. 

Pitt head coach Dan Fisher was gracious in defeat following the match, feeling proud of his team’s performance despite the tough final set.

“What a season these young women had,” Fisher said. “We weren’t quite up to our standards offensively and you know, our passing was streaky, so was theirs. But I was just so proud of our heart in the fourth set. We just hung in there and found a way to win and it just didn’t go our way today. But I’m just incredibly proud of this group, especially the seniors.”

After missing significant time in the first two matches Pitt and Louisville played against each other this season, junior outside hitter Anna DeBeer welcomed the Panthers to Omaha with an onslaught of blistering serves. She tallied two aces in a 6-0 run from Louisville to start the game, immediately putting Pitt on the back foot. 

But just as the set looked like it might get out of hand before it even began, Pitt once again showed its resilience, going on an 8-2 run and leveling the score at eight apiece. But its comeback was short lived, as Louisville took advantage of several Pitt errors to take a three point lead. 

From there it was just more of the same from both teams — Louisville dominated Pitt on serve-receive and predicted almost every move from the Panther attack. DeBeer rounded out her monumental set with a third ace, ultimately leading the Cardinals to a dominant 25-18 first frame win. 

Pitt hit an abysmal .056 in the first set, committing nine errors and an additional three service errors. The lone bright spot came from senior middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo who had three kills on three swings in the first. 

The Cardinals again came out looking like the better team in the second set. They quickly jumped out to a 4-1 lead, putting quality swings on seemingly every ball. As quickly as they jumped out to a lead, the Cardinals promptly lost it, committing four consecutive errors on a 5-0 Pitt run. 

The two sides went back and forth for the next several points, with Pitt holding a slight edge. Still, Louisville looked like the better team, finding itself in better point scoring positions and earning points on powerful back row attacks from DeBeer and graduate student outside hitter Claire Chaussee. 

Up 12-11, Pitt finally started to play its best volleyball, getting solid attacking opportunities and putting the Cardinals in tough positions. Graduate student middle blocker Serena Gray and sophomore setter Rachel Fairbanks took the reins, channeling their frustration into every swing and firing up the Panther crowd. 

The Panthers maintained a slight edge for the next few points, riding a three point wave on three consecutive kills. Up 21-17, Louisville once again found its footing, scoring three straight points and forcing Fisher to call his first timeout. Luckily for the Panthers, they’d get a side out on a net violation, swinging the momentum back in their favor. 

Up 22-21, the Panthers got a crucial kill from Fairbanks, and two points later earned their first set point. DeBeer fired off a kill, bringing Louisville back within one, but Gray finished off the set with a crafty kill toward the end line, earning Pitt a crucial 25-23 second set victory. 

Despite dropping the set, Louisville outscored Pitt in just about every major statistic in the second, but also made triple the attack errors. Fairbanks led the team in kills and assists while also recording a block and five digs in the first two sets. 

For the third consecutive set, Louisville jumped out to an early lead, again on DeBeer’s serve. Down 6-2, Fisher angrily called a timeout, trying to put his team on the same page. Whatever he said worked, because the Panthers flew out of the timeout on a 4-0 run and brought the set level. 

Tied at six, both teams started playing some of their best volleyball of the night, minimizing errors and flying all over the floor. The two sides matched each other point-for-point all the way until 15-15 where Pitt strung together a 4-1, forcing Louisville to call a timeout. 

Pitt controlled the set for the next several points — eventually leading 22-20 — but that’s where disaster struck. Once again, the Panthers got killed on serve-receive, dropping five consecutive points and brutally dropping the third set 25-22. 

Like a broken record, Pitt started on the back foot for the fourth consecutive set, again on DeBeer’s serve. She led the Cardinals to a 3-0 lead before Pitt finally managed to side out on a Buzzerio kill. Still, the Cardinals built on their momentum, extending their lead to 7-3.

A few points later, the Panthers again demonstrated their ability to play from behind, scoring three consecutive points on two kills from graduate student outside hitter Cam Ennis and drawing within one. 

The Panthers managed to stay within one for the next few points, but lapses in serve-receive again plagued the Pitt back line and the Cardinals looked poised to run away with the victory up 16-10.  

Then, miraculously, after being outplayed for almost the entirety of the fourth set, Pitt began to chip away at the Cardinal lead.

It started with a three point run on Gray’s serve. Then, an unprecedented four point swing to tie the match at 17 on three Cardinal errors. But as quickly as the comeback started, Pitt began to fade, dropping each of the next three points and committing two attack errors in the process.

Louisville gifted the Panthers a side out on a Chaussee service error, and Pitt drew back within one. A few points later, the Cardinals took a 22-20 lead. Just as The Cardinals did to Pitt the prior set, the Panthers flipped the script, going on a 5-0 run and forcing a fifth set with the 25-22 fourth set victory. 

Fisher said that while he obviously doesn’t like starting sets on the back foot, he was proud of the way his players responded to adversity, especially in the fourth set.

“We have a tough team,” Fisher said. “It’s certainly better to start a set out with the lead and falling behind didn’t help us, but just think we showed a lot of heart and a lot of ability to reset when things weren’t going our way.”

For as bad as the Panthers started the previous four sets, none of them came close to their start in the fifth. Behind DeBeer’s serve, they lost the first eight points of the frame on six attack errors.

According to DeBeer, her success on serves throughout the night is due to her training behind the scenes and confidence once she’s out on the floor.

“I just always think start strong, first one’s in then get in my rhythm and just trusting my training,” DeBeer said. “It’s all mental and I knew if I could just be aggressive and get them out of system at the very beginning of the match, that would help us a lot defensively and offensively.”

They finally got a side out, but the subsequent four point run from Louisville put the game far out of reach, and the Panthers ended their impressive run to Omaha with a disappointing 15-2 fifth set defeat — their worst defeat of the season. 

Despite the loss, Pitt continues to progress as a program and according to Nwokolo, the team was proud of how they performed, and happy that they’ve set a new benchmark for success as a program.

“We did just talk about how our first stump was making it past the Sweet 16 and now our new trial and error is making it past the Final Four,” Nwokolo said. “It’s not a terrible problem to have. Obviously we’re struggling for perspective right now but we do have some pride about what we did this year.”

With the win, Louisville is the first ACC volleyball team to advance to the National Championship in conference history. They will play No. 1 Texas in Omaha on Saturday at 7 p.m. EST. The game will air on ESPN2.

According to Louisville head coach Dani Busboom Kelly, having two ACC teams make the Final Four and having one go to the National Championship is yet another step up from last season when some people doubted the conference’s long term-talent.

“The ACC keeps getting better and better and I think it’s attracting really great athletes and keeping really great coaches in the conference,” she said. “I think last year we heard all the noise that ‘oh, the ACC isn’t as good and that was a fluke,’ and for us and Pitt to make it back again is really impressive.”