PITTSBURGH — In a NCAA Volleyball Tournament Sweet 16 matchup against Kansas, Pitt took care of business and swept the match in three straight sets on Thursday afternoon at the Fitzgerald Fieldhouse.
The victory for the Panthers (29-3) did not come as easy as a sweep would usually entail, as the Jayhawks (18-12) put pressure throughout the entire match, taking significant leads in the first two sets and were close early on in the third set.
“Well, a bit of relief, because it’s a lot of work just to get back in that spot and also just a lot of gratitude,” Pitt head coach Dan Fisher said after his team’s performance. “We said it from the start of the year. We knew going into it that we weren’t the favorite to win the championship this year, but we thought we could do it and we believed in ourselves. We don’t know if we will advance but we know we can. So, we just feel grateful to be here and we’re going to give it everything we got.”
The first set saw Kansas take an 8-3 lead early and forced Pitt head coach, Dan Fisher, to take a timeout to get reorganized.
After trading points with the score at 11-7, the Panthers scored 10 consecutive points to take a 17-11 lead, during which the Jayhawks took two timeouts to stop the Panthers’ lethal attack.
This attack was spearheaded by fifth year middle blocker Chinaza Ndee, who had three kills and a block assist, as well as graduate outside hitter Kayla Lund, who provided three service aces.
Pitt and Kansas went back-and-forth the rest of the way, as Pitt would end up winning the first set, 25-19. Pitt was able to hold Kansas’ lethal attack to a .172 hitting percentage.
Ndee finished with seven kills in the set, and behind her was senior outside hitter Leketor Member-Meneh, who had five kills herself. They were set up well, by fellow Panthers’ setters, junior Lexis Akeo and first-year Rachel Fairbanks, who had seven and six assists, respectively.
Pitt found itself in a similar situation in the second set as they did in the first, falling behind 7-4 early on.
The biggest difference in the second set for the Panthers was senior middle blocker Serena Gray, who had four kills and a service ace, giving her team a 17-13 lead.
The two teams went 8-8 the rest of the set, giving a 25-21 victory to Pitt and a 2-0 lead. Ndee made three kills and a block assist to keep Pitt steady and in control.
The Panthers finally took an early advantage, with a 4-1 lead in the third set, but then squandered it, allowing the Jayhawks to tie it at 7.
Pitt managed to get separation from Kansas with multiple players contributing to the attack, as Member-Meneh and junior Chiamaka Nwokolo had three and two kills each, respectively, to take a 15-9 lead.
Fairbanks, Gray and Lund were big the rest of the way, each scoring two points and keeping Kansas from having any hope of a comeback, winning the last set, 25-18.
The Panthers finished the game off with a .356 hitting percentage, their second highest in an NCAA tournament game in program history.
Ndee, who finished with a team leading 16 points and 14 kills, also had the second-best hitting percentage in an NCAA tournament game in Pitt history at .632. She was pleased by Pitt’s performance, describing it as a whole team performance.
“I think we capitalized on our balance, Ndee said. It’s hard for teams to stop us because at any moment, any of us can go off, any of us can get a kick.”
The game also started at 2 p.m., which is a contrast from usual starts for this Panthers team, which has played weekday and Friday nights or weekend afternoons. Despite the different start time, Member-Meneh said the crowd got the team energized the whole way through.
“I think it’s always good playing at home,” Member-Meneh said. “You can feel the love, even when we’re knocked down, I feel like our crowd lifts us up. So I think it’s really good that we’re going to be here this Saturday and I hope it’s a bigger crowd and they continue to feed us energy.”
The game Saturday will be at 4 p.m. against No. 6 Purdue, who made a dramatic comeback in their last set to overcome No. 11 BYU. Ndee says that despite being there last year, they are ready for the challenge and are ready to take on any opponent.
We don’t know if we will, but we know we can,” Ndee said. “That’s the kind of mindset we’re going into. I think we’re confident. We know we deserve to be here, we worked to be here. We’re taking it one day at a time, you know, and enjoying these moments together and just staying present.”