Pitt volleyball fails to secure NCAA Tournament bid

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Pitt volleyball fails to secure NCAA Tournament bid

Mariah Bell recovers from a dive.  Dagmar Seppala | Staff Photographer

Mariah Bell recovers from a dive. Dagmar Seppala | Staff Photographer

Mariah Bell recovers from a dive. Dagmar Seppala | Staff Photographer

Mariah Bell recovers from a dive. Dagmar Seppala | Staff Photographer

By David Leftwich / Staff Writer

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Closing out its season with two home wins may not have guaranteed a berth to the NCAA Tournament, but after splitting two matches last week, Pitt’s volleyball team will never know whether it would have made the difference.

The Panthers (23-9, 13-7 ACC) failed to make the NCAA Tournament in Sunday night’s selection show, as its impressive 13-2 home record could not make up for key late-season losses in the Fitzgerald Field House, including one Wednesday night. A tournament appearance would have been the Panthers’ first since 2004, when they were still a part of the Big East Conference.

Pitt closed out its regular season this week with two home matches against the Virginia Tech Hokies and Virginia Cavaliers on Wednesday and Friday, respectively. In the two matches at the Fitzgerald Field House, Pitt lost to Virginia Tech 3-2 before completing its regular season with a 3-0 sweep against Virginia.

To start the first match, Pitt won the first set with a strong offensive output, hitting 18 kills while maintaining a .341 hitting percentage. Virginia could not keep up, only hitting .225 to lose the set 25-21.

Sloppiness plagued the second set — both teams hit below .200 and stayed close to each other throughout the entire set. The difference was the Hokies’ ability to capitalize at the end of the set when it mattered most.

The Hokies were down 22-20, but proceeded to win five of the next six points to win the set 25-23. Pitt senior middle hitter Amanda Orchard said defensive breakdowns late in the set blocked the team.

“Defensively, I think we struggled,” Orchard said. “We were up and down.”

Rebounding from this tough second set loss, the Panthers jumped out to a 13-7 lead in the third set and inflated that margin to as as many as eight points, eventually earning a 25-18 set win.

But all of the momentum from the third set immediately halted for the Panthers as they played one of their worst stretches of the season. They had only seven kills while hitting 15 errors.

Because of Pitt’s misfires, Virginia Tech dominated the fourth set, taking a 13-9 lead to open up and taking 12 of the next 15 points to win 25-12. Pitt lost the last five points of the set on errors.

With both teams split at 2-2, the outcome came down to a shortened but competitive fifth set.

At 14-12 in the match, Pitt was in total control with a match point. But they folded and lost three of the next four points on errors to lose the set 16-14 and the match 3-2.

“We made a few errors at the end, but I think it could have gone either way,” head coach Dan Fisher said.

After the grueling five-set match, Pitt ensured its next match two days later did not go the same way, as Pitt dispatched Virginia in straight sets, 3-0. Sophomore outside hitter Mariah Bell said the team leaned on each other to refocus mentally on the next match.

“It takes teammates to pick you up from a loss like that, so it was definitely the teammates and coaches that gave us all of their courage,” Bell said.

The first set of the match was the closest. Pitt came out to an early deficit but closed it by winning six of the next nine points, tying the Cavaliers at eight apiece. From there, the Panthers built a lead and never let it go, eventually taking the set 25-21.

Pitt completely shut down Virginia’s offense, holding the Cavaliers to eight kills, while thriving offensively themselves with 17 kills. This disparity didn’t reflect on the scoreboard until Pitt broke an 11-11 tie in the match. The Panthers shook the Cavaliers and took the set 25-17.

In the final set of the match, the Panthers continued their domination after breaking an early 8-8 tie. Pitt’s efficient offense soon imposed its will and slowly pulled away. On the back of a .385 hitting percentage and only three errors, Pitt won the third set 25-15 and the match 3-0.

This win was a necessity to try and keep Pitt’s NCAA Tournament hopes alive. Despite the latest convincing victory, losses in two of their last four matches ultimately doomed the team’s tournament chances.

Despite the tournament news, Orchard said she is happy with how her team competed until the end of the season.

“These past four years have been great, but I couldn’t be more proud of this team. Especially this year,” Orchard said.

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