Pitt volleyball splits a pair of weekend road matches

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Pitt volleyball splits a pair of weekend road matches

Middle Blocker Jenna Potts preps for a return hit.  Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

Middle Blocker Jenna Potts preps for a return hit. Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

Middle Blocker Jenna Potts preps for a return hit. Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

Middle Blocker Jenna Potts preps for a return hit. Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

By David Leftwich / Staff Writer

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Dan Fisher knew a win over No. 22 Louisville this weekend would sharpen Pitt volleyball’s NCAA Tournament chances, especially given his team’s season-long road struggles.

That upset win never came, as Pitt (20-6, 10-4 ACC) lost a five-set heartbreaker on Friday in Louisville, Kentucky. A road win over a ranked team carries more weight with the tournament selection committee,  but Pitt still salvaged a crucial 3-0 sweep on Sunday over a weak Notre Dame team to bolster its conference record.

“[Beating Notre Dame] was absolutely critical if we want to make the NCAA tournament,” Fisher, Pitt’s head volleyball coach, said.

Still, a road win over a ranked Louisville team would have made reaching the postseason significantly easier.

Early in the first match against the one-loss Cardinals, Louisville used a 15-9 run to build a lead. But Pitt dug in and mounted a strong comeback to win the first set 25-23.

The Cardinals had less difficulty in the next frame, winning 25-15, thanks to its .314 hit percentage.

“Louisville is a strong defensive team,” Fisher said. “They challenged us in a lot of ways.”

Fisher said one of these challenges was putting away points after volleys, where they struggled until the third set.

In this round, the Panthers shut down the Cardinals’ offense, holding them to a .026 hitting percentage while they increased their hitting to better than .300. Pitt easily went on to win 25-10.

At 21 apiece in the fourth set, Louisville scored two straight points to take a 23-21 lead. Knotted at 24, the Cardinals won two points on a service error from libero Angela Seman and then a kill from outside hitter Maya McClendon to win the set 26-24.

This forced the match to go to a fifth set, in which the first team to 15 points wins. After Pitt snatched a 8-5 lead, Louisville’s Erin Fairs hit seven kills to help Louisville revive and win the fifth set 15-11, taking the match 3-2.

Graduate transfer outside hitter Kadi Kullerkann said the team didn’t let the loss linger, as Louisville was a quality opponent to face on the road.

“It was just two really good teams battling back and forth,” Kullerkann said.

On Sunday, the Panthers faced a significantly more beatable opponent in Notre Dame (6-20, 1-13 ACC), and the visitors continued Notre Dame’s season-long struggles.

The Panthers stormed out to a 14-10 lead to open the match. After a small charge moved the Irish within one point of the Panthers, the visitors won six of the next seven points to take the first set 25-19. Both teams had a strong offensive start, but Pitt’s gaudy 20 kills and .390 hitting percentage won out.

Pitt kept up the momentum and never allowed Notre Dame within three points the rest of the second set, closing out Notre Dame 25-22. Kullerkann led the Panthers with a game-high 17 kills in the match, and Jenna Jacobson tallied 30 assists to lead the team.

Even though Pitt did not drop a set, Fisher said Notre Dame played stout defense and limited senior middle hitter Amanda Orchard.

“They had a really nice game plan against Orchard,” Fisher said. “They limited her offensively, which is very tough to do.”

Notre Dame put up a fight in the third set, but the Panthers took it 25-23 and swept the match 3-0.

Pitt’s defensive intensity led the way for the team, particularly in the final frame. It held Notre Dame to its lowest hitting percentage of the match at .053, while maintaining the offensive output from earlier in the match.

Explaining their defensive success, redshirt junior middle hitter Jenna Potts said the team formed a defensive game plan and stuck to it for the match.

“We had a really clear idea what they were going to do offensively,” Potts said. “I think we blocked really well because we knew what they were doing.”

In the bigger picture, the split weekend still keeps Pitt’s NCAA tournament hopes alive. The Panthers lost to a ranked Louisville squad, but most importantly for Fisher, Pitt pulled off a crucial road win against Notre Dame.

“I don’t think it mattered that much emotionally, but it mattered a lot for our goal to make the tournament,” Fisher said.

Pitt will continue its four-game road stretch Friday when it travels to North Carolina for a 7:30 p.m. match.

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