PITTSBURGH — No. 10 Pitt volleyball faced a tough opponent in No. 17 Kentucky in front of a crowd of 3,867 at the Petersen Events Center Sunday afternoon and came away with a four set victory.
The win for the Panthers (4-1) is the second this weekend against the Wildcats (1-3), who they beat on the road in Lexington, Ky. on Friday. It also makes it the second straight season with two wins against SEC opponents, as they defeated Texas A&M in the regular season and Florida in the Sweet 16 in 2022, respectively.
“I thought both were really good events that were attended well,” Panthers head coach Dan Fisher said on the weekend against the Wildcats. “They both felt big time and I know the athletes appreciated the fan attendance on both ends.”
This is also the fourth straight win for the Panthers at the Petersen Events Center in the regular season and the sixth overall, including the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers are 11-2 all-time at the Petersen Events Center.
Pitt and Kentucky found themselves level early on in the first set, tied at five points each. Pitt would then score 10 points to Kentucky’s seven to take a 15-12 lead, forcing the road team to take a timeout. Kentucky tried, but couldn’t cut into Pitt’s lead, as the home team would win the first set, 25-21.
The Wildcats took control of the second set early on, starting out with a 9-4 lead that forced the Panthers to take a timeout. The Panthers cut the lead to 17-15 and then scored five of the next six points to earn a 20-18 advantage.
The Panthers looked like they had the second set, up 23-20, but the Wildcats scored three straight point to level it up at 23. Both teams traded points at 25 each, but then Wildcats redshirt sophomore middle blocker Jordyn Williams and senior outside hitter Reagan Rutherford made back-to-back kills to come out tie the match up at one set each.
Pitt took their anger out after failing to win the last set, by coming out on a 7-0 run in the third set with first-year outside hitter Torrey Stafford making three kills. Kentucky could not keep up at all, as Pitt had a .500 hitting percentage and won the set easily, 25-13.
It looked like Pitt would get another easy set victory to win the match in the fourth set, as an 11-7 lead, forcing Kentucky to take a timeout, and then again at 19-15. Kentucky battled back, scoring seven of the next 12 set points to cut the lead to one, 23-22. Stafford then made a kill and first-year setter Haiti Tautua’a finished the match off with a service ace.
No. 10 Pitt Volleyball @Pitt_VB defeats No. 17 Kentucky in four sets at the Petersen Events Center Sunday afternoon.
Great crowd at the Pete this afternoon pic.twitter.com/aZzFJo1f3K
— Dominic Campbell (@DOMISMONEY) September 3, 2023
Following a disappointing four-set loss to then ranked No. 17 BYU in four sets to open the season in Montana, Fisher had to change a few things when it came to how his team performed on the court, particularly when it came to his pin hitters. Pin hitters are attackers who hit on the left and right sides of the net, near the antennas, which is how it became known as pin.
“One, our pins hit negative in that match,” Fisher said about the BYU match. “One is a level of we needed to play better, but I think as a team we didn’t set well, so we’ve been focusing on setting and putting our pin hitters in different positions, especially in long rallies. I also think we’ve just been working harder in transition. It’s been paying off.”
Stafford and first-year right-side hitter Olivia Babcock led the Panthers with 13 kills each, a season-high for both of them. They dominated at both ends of the net consistently throughout the match, with Babcock having season-high seven total blocks and Stafford having three total blocks as well.
Babcock loved getting her first win at home against Kentucky and witnessing how great the Pitt volleyball fanbase did by showing support in the numbers they did. She loved the attention and hopes to see great crowds going forward.
“It was pretty meaningful,” Babcock said. “Especially since our first game against Kentucky was their first home match. So I knew they wanted to do the same thing to us. So it meant a lot, it meant even more because of that fact. Just being out here was a huge and important feeling for me. I’ve just been thinking about this day and the fact that it just happened is crazy. It was very important, it was a huge match, I’m very proud.”
Junior setter Rachel Fairbanks continues to work all over the court, also playing as a right-side hitter. She had season-highs with 15 digs and 25 assists in the win over the Wildcats, while also providing seven kills and two blocks.
She’s loved playing with the team this season, now an upperclassman, and credits that to the young group of talented first-year players who have made matches a great amount of fun.
“We have our Pitt volleyball standards,” Fairbanks said on the team this season. “I would say it’s younger. We have a lot of big personalities in practice and then it shows up on the court in games.”
Fisher also credited Michigan State graduate transfer middle blocker Emma Monks on her performance against Kentucky. Monks made a team and season-high eight total blocks, eight kills and had a .615 hitting percentage in the victory. Fellow middle blocker in sophomore Rachel Jepsen had a good match herself, making three kills and four total blocks.
Redshirt senior outside hitter Valeria Vasquez Gomez made eight kills and finished second on the team with 14 digs, demonstrating her versatility for the Panthers.
Graduate middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo and junior outside hitter Julianna Dalton both played for Pitt against Kentucky. Nwokolo missed the previous three matches and spent time on the sideline on a bike. Dalton also had injury problems towards the end of last season and missed the previous two matches.
Florida transfer in junior middle blocker Bre Kelley did not dress against Kentucky. She suffered an injury last game against Kentucky on Friday and had a boot on her left foot, indicating she might be out for some time.
Tautua’a finished second on the Panthers with 17 assists and junior libero/defensive specialist Emmy Klika made six assists and nine digs.
Pitt volleyball goes back on the road next weekend, as they take on Marquette in Milwaukee, Wis. on Friday, Sept. 8 at 8:00 p.m. EST.