PITTSBURGH — Pitt prepares for NCAA Tournament play this weekend, as they host Colgate at the Petersen Events Center on Friday Dec. 2 at 7 p.m.
Pitt finished the season with a 27-3 overall record and a 17-1 ACC record, that earned them a share of the ACC Title with No. 1 seed Louisville. They finished with a 5-2 record against ranked opponents and won a program record four times against teams ranked in the top 10.
They earned a No. 2 seed during the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on Sunday. This allows them to host the first two rounds of the tournament, which they do this weekend. If they defeat Colgate, they host the winner of No. 7 BYU/James Madison on Saturday, Dec. 3 at 7 p.m., again at the Petersen Events Center.
This is the seventh straight and seventh overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament for the Panthers under head coach Dan Fisher, which is the longest streak in program history. It is also the 18th overall appearance in the tournament for the Panthers.
The first four times that Fisher made it to the NCAA Tournament, the Panthers failed to progress past the Second Round. They finally broke through in the COVID-19 impacted 2020-21 season, as they made it to the Elite Eight and then to the Final Four last season.
Pitt did not receive a No. 1 seed that they did last year. That No. 1 seed gave allowed them to host from the First Round through the Elite Eight last year, which benefited them on their way to their first Final Four appearance.
Senior libero/defensive specialist Ashley Browske did not expect that Pitt would earn a No. 1 seed in the tournament. To her and the team, they have to play the best teams if they make it further into the postseason, so they’ll take the harder path and learn from it.
“No, again we were in the group of people who could’ve gotten that last spot, but also we were expecting anything, and I think that the position we’re in allows us to become really battle tested,” Browske said in a press conference Wednesday. “If we get past all these people in our path then we’re going to be really confident going into that Final Four.”
The Panthers boast a roster full of experienced players that are ready to do what they can to achieve their goal of that NCAA Championship. Five players earned All-ACC honors, with three players on the First Team and two players on the Second Team.
First-team All-ACC Courtney Buzzerio leads Pitt on the attack. The Iowa transfer finished first amongst Power 5 pin-hitters in hitting percentage with at least 775 attempts in the regular season. She also made a team-high 379 kills on .329 hitting, demonstrating her efficiency at the net.
Buzzerio averaged 3.29 kills per set, seventh best in the ACC, and her .329 hitting percentage finished as 10th best in the conference. For her efforts, she received an unanimous spot on the First Team.
Her time at Iowa didn’t result in any NCAA Tournament appearances, so this is the first time she is featuring in the postseason. Senior middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo, a player who knows what the postseason means and what is necessary for success.
“In practice the other day, I think it was yesterday, Courtney [Buzzerio] was like, “Wow. I’ve never practiced this late before,” Nwokolo said. “I asked her, “What do you mean?” And she said, “I’ve never made the tournament.” So that was really cool to just see her perspective and her excitement to be in this position.”
Graduate middle blocker Serena Gray and Nwokolo feature as one of the best middle blocker duos in the nation. Gray earned First-Team All-ACC for the second straight season and Nwokolo made the Second-Team All-ACC.
Gray finished third in the ACC with a .406 hitting percentage in 2022 and eighth in the conference with an average of 1.10 blocks per set. Her 51 errors are 10th fewest in Division I with a .400 hitting percentage or higher. She is also one of four players in the past two years to hit over .400. Gray is also the only player to make 130 kills on a hitting percentage over .400 in ACC play.
As for Nwokolo, she led Pitt with an average of 1.13 blocks per set, which finished as seventh best in the ACC. She also had her first 100 kill and 100 block season of her career with the increased playing time in 2022.
Graduate middle blocker Sabrina Starks also provides solid play off the bench at the net for Pitt, with first-year middle blocker Rachel Jepsen making appearances as well this season.
Redshirt junior outside hitter Valeria Vasquez Gomez is another player who is thriving under more playing time in 2022.
Vasquez Gomez, who earned First-Team All-ACC, joins Buzzerio as the only two Pitt players to play every single set this season. She made the second most kills, the second highest percentage by a pin and also made the third most aces and digs for Pitt.
One her best games came against No. 13 Georgia Tech last Wednesday, as she made a career-high 22 kills in the five-set classic. She also made the final kill in a strenuous third set for Pitt last Saturday against Boston College, demonstrating her clutch play recently.
Sophomore outside hitter Julianna Dalton also plays an important part for the Panthers. She ranks third in kills, fourth in blocks and digs and has featured in all but one set this season.
Sophomore setter Rachel Fairbanks led the team with 725 assists, almost 500 more than the next player. She plays an all-around game, making kills and also playing strong defense by making clutch blocks and digs. Fairbanks is the first Panther to make over 100 kills, 700 assists, 200 digs and 30 aces in a season in the modern scoring era and earned Second-Team All-ACC for her efforts.
Senior setter Lexis Akeo is back healthy and provides backup to Fairbanks. Graduate outside hitter Cam Ennis also features at the setter position and is second on the team with 239 assists.
The Panthers also feature two staunch liberos in senior Ashley Browske and sophomore Emmy Klika. Browske served as the main libero for most of the season, as she leads with the Panthers with 163 digs.
Klika played most of the game against the Yellow Jackets last Wednesday and earned her first start against the Eagles last Saturday. Fisher described Klika as the “best passer on the team” after the victory over the Eagles and she will likely start the rest of the season.
Junior outside hitter Cat Flood plays as the serve specialist for Pitt, coming in at crucial moments to put in great serves to earn her team points. First-year libero/defensive specialist Dillyn Griffin also comes in to serve, with her dominant left-handed serve providing issues for opponents.
For Fisher, the great depth in his team provides a challenge, but one that has improved his team, particularly during practice.
“It’s been one of the hardest years I’ve had with a lot of talent not always in the roles they want,” Fisher said. “The most important part is that it’s made our practice gym better. It also gives us strength knowing that if someone is having an off day, someone can come in and get the job done.”
Pitt played a tough schedule in 2022 as they played 13 teams in this NCAA Tournament. This includes nine non-conference teams with five seeded teams in No. 2 San Diego, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 7 BYU, No. 8 Hawai’i and No. 8 Towson and four non-seeded teams in High Point, Bowling Green, Utah State and Tennessee.
They only lost to San Diego the first game of the season and Towson at home in early September, as they finished with a 10-2 conference record. Pitt also defeated then ranked No. 7 BYU on their home court in September for an important road win to kickstart their season, which will likely serve as a great rematch on Saturday.
For Fisher, he said that it takes some luck to put together a non-conference schedule that ends up with that many teams in the tournament. He also said that it takes some understanding of college volleyball and what teams are consistently good that you can earn good wins against.
“The last two years, I look like I know what I’m doing,” Fisher said. “There is an element of luck to it. You do your research. You see who the transfers are. Ultimately, you kind of, put your faith in a proven coach that gets 20 wins every year, but the RPI is still a big factor. So, we’re trying to schedule teams that we think we can beat, but that will have a lot wins and then trying to get enough in that are top 10, top 25 wins.”
The goal for the Panthers is to return to the Final Four and win the National Title in Omaha, Neb. on Dec. 17. Browske said this team understands what is required to achieve this goal and that now is the time to play the best volleyball they can.
“I think now that we went to a Final Four, we know what it takes to get there,” Browske said. “So, we’re going to do everything in our power to get back to that place and go after a national championship.”