No. 5 Pitt volleyball was stunned by Duke today for their first loss of the season, losing 3-1. The Panthers weren’t exactly dominated as every set was close but they were soundly beaten and the better team clearly won today.
The Panthers won the first set with relative ease, 25-18, and it looked like it would be a typical day resulting in a Pitt win. But the Blue Devils would come back and win three in a row from Pitt, 26-24, 25-23, and 25-22. Each set could have gone either way but, Duke had just a bit more down the stretch every time.
Duke is 13-8 on the season so they haven’t been lights out this year. But they have won five out of six now in the ACC and seem to be surging a bit. The Blue Devils have been a pretty good program the last few years, going 19-12 last year and 21-9 the year before. I think they’ve been ranked at some point in one of those seasons. This is an upset but it hopefully will not be seen as a crippling loss.
I made the point earlier today that I thought the team that would ultimately beat Pitt would probably be a taller, defensive-minded team that was capable of handling their multiple hitting options.
I didn’t think that team would be Duke but they fit the bill. Pitt has only two players listed at 6’2” or taller. Conversely, Duke has six.
Pitt was able to hit pretty well in the first set but that dried up as the match went along and I thought the other thing Duke did really well was set up their hitters all day long. Like Pitt, they use two setters and they did an incredible job.
Specifically to Duke’s defense, I don’t have the final stats in front of me yet. But the hitting percentage for Pitt could not have been good today. They were repeatedly stuffed up front or, on the occasion they got the ball past the blockers, Duke did a great job digging out shots and not giving up the kills.
Pitt’s size is probably the team’s biggest weakness. Middle Layne Van Buskirk is really the only considerable size they have, and she’s ‘only’ 6’3”. Many teams, including Duke (who has two players 6’5”), trot out bigger lineups. Pitt is generally able to offset that by having three excellent hitters in Kayla Lund, Stephanie Williams, and Nika Markovic. That makes it difficult to defend them as it keeps defenses off guard on who to commit to with a block. But that didn’t work out today and Pitt will be sometimes challenged by taller teams as they were today.
Going undefeated was seeming more and more possible but, as I stressed earlier this year, it’s just something that’s very difficult to do. Pitt is the class of the ACC and the team everyone wants to knock off. Not only that, but as a top five team in the nation, beating them is a statement win. To expect the team to beat every single opponent is just not all that realistic. Possible? I mean, it’s happened. But it’s not commonplace even for elite teams. No. 1 BYU was the only other team that was ranked coming into this weekend, so that shows you how tough it is. One of the broadcasters mentioned that this was probably the best Duke has played all season. That’s what Pitt is going to be up against as the top team in the ACC. As is often said during the matches, they are getting teams’ best shots every time out.
Where does Pitt go from here? Well, it’s not the end of the world. Pitt is still in the driver’s seat to win the ACC (though, they have far less margin for error now). And the Panthers are still in a good position to finish in the top 16 to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Where it hurts Pitt, however, is it will be difficult to finish in the Top 4 and host the next rounds after those.
I made this point earlier but, that’s part of the reason they needed to be ranked as highly as possible. If the seeds ahead of them advance past the opening rounds, those teams would get the opportunity to host the next rounds ahead of the Panthers. It’s part of the reason they need to finish as high in the rankings as possible to get a high tournament seed.
But this isn’t the end here, folks. The undefeated run is over, which is disappointing. But the Panthers still have a great team and, more importantly, a great program that is continuing to gain more recognition.
Next up, Pitt travels to face Georgia Tech on Friday and then Clemson on Sunday.