Today’s match against No. 21 Louisville was expected to be a close one and it didn’t disappoint. In the end, Pitt won it 3-1, remaining undefeated at 22-0.
The win keeps Pitt in control of the race to win the ACC title. Things are hardly over, though, as they still have to face Florida State, who is only 12-7 but 8-1 in ACC play (their only loss came earlier to Pitt). But this was just the latest big test passed by the Panthers.
The first two sets were won by some really key late plays late by upperclassmen. Nika Markovic came up with a few key kills and a block late in the first as Pitt took that one, 25-22. In the second, Stephanie Williams added a big kill and a block as the Panthers won, 26-24. Pitt had to come back in both sets and each one was really a back and forth battle. Either set could have gone either way.
The third one was another overtime set but this one ended differently. Unlike the first two, Pitt made some costly mistakes down the stretch, with hitting errors into the net by Markovic and middle Layne Van Buskirk. Kayla Lund had a couple of chances on big swings but was also stuffed by the net and hit one of out of bounds. That allowed Louisville to come back after Pitt had match point for a 28-26 win.
That felt like a missed opportunity as Pitt had the match point late in the set but couldn’t hold on. And that feeling multiplied as the Panthers were getting run out of the building in the fourth set. Pitt was down at one point 16-6 and that’s not something we’ve seen much at any time this season. The problem wasn’t only that Pitt was getting beaten badly, it’s that the momentum was shifting in the match.
But then Pitt went on a run. A big one.
With Markovic serving, Louisville fell completely apart. Pitt got some timely blocks, Markovic had a few aces, and suddenly the Panthers went on an 11-1 run to tie it. That run didn’t end there, though. The Cardinals were completely out of their rhythm and Markovic kept going. Point after point, Louisville was shut down and Pitt continued a run all the way to a 21-17 lead until the Cardinals finally got a point to end the run. After some back and forth, Pitt would close things out for a 25-20 win to take the match.
Pitt pulled that trick one other time this year in coming back from a large deficit. Offhand, I can’t remember the opponent, but we’ve seen them do this before. But to come back from down ten against a ranked opponent and still win the set by five? That’s not something you see too often.
I’ve talked a lot this year about Lund who, pound for pound, could be the team’s best player. But Markovic is obviously in that conversation, too, and was influential during that big serving run. There are just so many weapons. Stephanie Williams had a huge match and, last I saw, was leading the team in kills for the day. So many big hitters on this team which makes trying to determine where you set your blocks as a defender next to impossible. Pitt will even set them when they’re on the back line at times. It’s kind of ridiculous how good they are as a trio and all three are legit All-ACC players.
Watching it, I don’t really know how to explain what happened to Louisville. The announcers mentioned that they couldn’t get their offense going with Markovic’s serve and I agree with that. But the Cardinals were just flat out mishitting balls, too. They looked completely out of sync and even when you can’t set up your offense, you can still score points if players keep the ball in the air. Louisville didn’t do that and when they did manage to get off a clean shot, it went right into the hands of Pitt blockers or out of bounds. Nothing was going their way and, looking back, they’re going to feel like they let it slip away.
Louisville certainly could have forced a fifth set but, even then there was no guarantee they could have kept it going. Pitt looked really determined after the players got together in one of the huddles and this is a team that’s just very difficult to beat. You can take a set from them. Winning two sets against them is very tough. But beating them in three sets is not an easy task by any means. I’m not sure that the Cardinals would have had enough to beat them in a fifth set, no matter how bad things looked early in the fourth. Still, I’m glad Pitt didn’t put that to the test and took care of Louisville in four.
Another thing that should be mentioned is that the crowds for these last two matches have been phenomenal. Friday against Notre Dame, they had just over 2,000 people in attendance, which was second most all time for a match. I don’t know what the attendance was today but it was another full crowd. The city is getting behind this team and that’s great to see.
Can Pitt go undefeated? I pitched that thought weeks ago after the Panthers beat Washington, what was then their only ranked opponent left on the schedule. Louisville got into the rankings but, as of now, Pitt doesn’t have any ranked teams left.
It’s still a very, very difficult ask. The Panthers still have eight regular season matches left before the NCAA Tournament and six of them will be on the road. One of those is that aforementioned match against Florida State, which could determine the conference champion. To expect a team to go out and just win every single time ... I mean, it’s not easy to do. Teams have off days, even Pitt. The difference is that, so far, none of those off days have cost the team a victory yet.
As I wrote on Friday, Pitt hasn’t been getting great respect in the polls, which is kind of a shame. You almost feel like they have to go undefeated to get any degree of respect and that’s sort of ridiculous given the number of ranked teams they’ve beaten. With their RPI what it is, you can make an argument that this team should be as high as probably No. 4.
Pitt now heads on the road for the next two weekends. Next up is Wake Forest on Friday night.
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