Somewhere in the middle of Pitt’s NCAA volleyball tournament regional final against Washington on Monday afternoon, the hunters became the hunted.
The unseeded Panthers, who made it past the second round of the tournament for the first time in program history, weren’t satisfied with that accomplishment after sweeping Utah in the second round.
They went on to upset No. 3 Minnesota in the regional semifinals in a five-set marathon and seemed well on their way on Monday to pulling of a similar feat when the Panthers won the first two sets against the Huskies.
At that point, the Panthers were a set away from playing in the final four of the tournament, and that’s when things changed.
Staked to a comfortable lead over the No. 6-seeded team in the country, the Panthers seemed to lose a bit of the underdog edge that had powered them through the early rounds of the tournament.
“We’ve been kind of playing with an underdog mentality this whole year,” head coach Dan Fisher said. “We had it the first two sets and just lost it a little bit in the third. We were close in the fourth and it could have gone either way. Would have been nice to get that one but it wasn’t meant to be.”
“I think we just kind of went away from the idea of going for it,” senior right side Chinaza Ndee said. “We’ve been playing to win this whole tournament. And I think in that moment, being up 2-0, I think we just started playing not to lose and we started being more tentative in talking less, communicating less. Things that are kind of the heart and soul of this team. I think we just let those slip and Washington’s a good team if you give them that. You give them a little little break, they’re gonna take advantage of it.”
The Huskies took advantage of that little break by fairly handily taking the third set. In the fourth, it took some good fortune. With the set tied at 23-23, Pitt appeared to get a big block from senior setter Kylee Levers to give the Panthers a shot at a match point.
Washington challenged the play, and while Levers’ block was upheld, Pitt outside hitter Kayla Lund had just barely grazed the bottom of net with her left hip during a block attempt earlier in the point. It was the second straight challenge win for the Huskies late in the fourth set, which provided them their whole margin of victory.
“I think the calls were ultimately correct,” Ndee said. “I don’t think that they got it wrong. Obviously, you know, you don’t want to lose on a call, you want to lose playing volleyball, right? So, you know, it was just a tough draw.”
After the review, Washington earned its set point to take the fourth and the raced to a fifth-set rout, winning the Huskies’ second straight five-set match to advance to the final four. Ndee said the team was trying to not let drama of the end of the fourth impact their play moving forward.
“I mean, it is deflating, but, you know, we were prepared for any call to go their way to be honest,” she said. “We were talking to each other, making sure that we were in the moment regardless of whether, you know, we got the call or not. … Volleyball is a game of momentum shifts in general. So I think that you can always kind of feel where the momentum is shifting during the game. Obviously, we try our best to stop it. But that’s just kind of the way the game works.”
More simply put, the underdog energy that the Panthers had been providing had run out. It’s a lesson for the team to take going forward, as the rising Pitt program looks for a return to that level and beyond.
Pitt has already made an adjustment to being one of the hunted teams in the ACC, where the Panthers won three straight league titles from 2017-19 and had an even better 2020-21 as the final ACC team playing in the tournament, despite not winning the league title.
Now, the Panthers will have to transition to becoming a hunted team at the national level, and dealing with the different kinds of pressures that success brings, including knowing how to put away teams when up 2-0 in big situations.
“I hope this failure is a motivator and it makes our players that are returning want to be even better,” Fisher said.
While Fisher called Pitt’s loss to Washington a failure, the Panthers’ season and continued rise from a middle-of-the-pack squad to one of the very best in the ACC and a national contender can be seen as nothing less than a huge win for the program in the long run.
“You always want to win one more,” Fisher said. “But I’m really proud of the group. …. We’ll be better for it.”
When Ndee was asked about the impact that she and her four-year teammates have had on the program, she fought back tears.
“We’re legit,” she said. “We’re a good team. I believe in us. It’s not even about sticking it to the doubters or anything like that. It’s just about showing people what we’ve always been. That’s what we did in this tournament.”