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Volleyball splits final two road matches of the season

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Amanda Orchard prepares to spike the ball.  Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

Amanda Orchard prepares to spike the ball. Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

Amanda Orchard prepares to spike the ball. Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

By David Leftwich / Staff Writer

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Pitt volleyball experienced the power of time firsthand when two foes the team dominated in September now plagued it over the weekend.

The Panthers (21-7, 11-5 ACC) lost 3-0 to North Carolina on Friday and edged North Carolina State 3-2 Saturday in two matches starkly different than their meetings in September. Last time, Pitt defeated NC State 3-1 and UNC 3-0, but this time, split its road trip with a close five-set victory over the Wolfpack.

In the first match of the weekend, Pitt squared off against No. 25 North Carolina on Friday. The Tar Heels entered winning seven straight matches, seemingly improved and having earned ranked status since Pitt’s 3-0 win over them in September.

Pitt opened the match with powerful attacks, jumping out to an 8-2 lead with four kills by graduate transfer outside hitter Kadi Kullerkann during the stretch.

North Carolina responded to eventually tie the Panthers at 19 apiece. Play stayed tight as a serving error from each squad brought the score to 26 on both sides. The Tar Heels took control from there, hitting two kills to take the set 28-26.

The second set was a different story for the Panthers, as their offensive production fell off from a hitting percentage of .312 to .062. Senior middle hitter Amanda Orchard said the team didn’t attack as much as it should have.

“I think we got a little nervous and got a little tentative,” Orchard said.

North Carolina took an early 9-4 lead to start the second set. The Panthers hit six errors in that stretch to give the opportunistic Tar Heels the advantage.

Despite sloppy play, Pitt stayed in the match, pulling as close as a one-point deficit at 15-14. The combination of North Carolina’s efficient play and Pitt’s carelessness doomed the Panthers, who dropped the second set 25-20.

With a difficult 2-0 set hole, Pitt came out and took an early lead at 8-5. The Tar Heels used five Pitt errors to storm back and pull to a 20-20 tie. North Carolina pulled away, winning the next five points to win the final set 25-20 and the match 3-0.

Amid the team’s sloppy play, Kullerkann excelled, hitting 18 kills in the match.

“I just wanted to leave it all out on the court, and I tried to do my best to help the team,” Kullerkann said.

Friday’s loss only elevated Pitt’s next weekend match on Saturday against NC State (15-12, 4-12 ACC), which the Panthers had previously beaten in September.

A fierce back and forth early on set the tone for what turned into a five-set match. After overcoming a small deficit in the first set, the Panthers took a 26-25 lead with an upcoming set point. Pitt dropped the next point but gained another match point with the lead at 28-27. It couldn’t take advantage of the second chance, losing the following point and eventually the set 30-28. Orchard said the team missed a big opportunity to open up the match by dropping that first set.

“I think we should’ve taken that set from them, but we each knew we had to pick up our game just a little bit to pull out the match,” Orchard said.

Pitt responded well in the following two sets, grabbing 25-22 wins in each. Despite the back-and-forth play, Pitt picked up its intensity at the end of both sets to earn victories.

In the fourth set, NC State boosted its offensive efficiency, hitting .308. Pitt managed to match the Wolfpack’s level of play, tying the game up at 18 apiece in the set. But NC State won seven of the next nine points to take the set 25-21 and force a winner-take-all set.

With a 2-2 tied match, Pitt had to respond in a fifth set, with the first to 15 points winning the match. After a timeout down 11-9 in the set, the Panthers won the next six points to win the set 15-9 and the match 3-2.

Sophomore middle blocker Kelsey O’Neill made a few crucial, point-winning hits late in the match. Head coach Dan Fisher switched O’Neill to play middle hitter in the final set, and she answered with three kills.

“She came in and really helped us there,” Fisher said.

The win helped salvage the road trip for the Panthers, who needed to escape with at least one win to bolster their tournament chances. With four more home matches before the NCAA announces the tournament field on Nov. 29, Pitt can help its chances by sweeping its upcoming competition to add to a strong tournament resume thanks to its 11-0 home record

The first game of the homestand comes next Friday against Boston College at 7 p.m.

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Volleyball splits final two road matches of the season