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No. 6 Pitt volleyball tops No. 10 Oregon, 3-1 to remain perfect

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Pitt squared off against Oregon in a matchup of top ten volleyball teams on Wednesday night at home. Things were close but the Panthers won decidedly, 3-1, to remain a perfect 7-0 on the season. Oregon falls to 2-1.

The first set was hotly contested. I don’t know how many lead changes there were but the two teams swapped leads seemingly every couple of points with the Panthers coming out on top, 26-24. It was one of the more entertaining sets to watch and I think that was a big win for Pitt to get up early. Oregon looked like they were on their way to an easy win in the second before Pitt stormed back to challenge. But the Panthers ultimately dropped that one, 25-23.

Just like Oregon took control of the second, Pitt did the third. Only, unlike Oregon, Pitt actually held off several challenges from the Ducks and won it fairly comfortably, 25-20. The Panthers then took the fourth set, 25-22, to win the match.

A few things stood out in this match. One thing that I’ve mentioned in the past was called out by one of the announcers. When Pitt isn’t going to get off a good attempt on offense, many times they’ll simply push it over the net without much force. That allows the other team to set up their offense easily. Instead, what they should be doing is hitting it harder or, at the very least, hitting it towards and empty spot on the court, to make the other team work for an offensive set up. I was glad to hear someone mention this because I’ve been saying it going back to a year or two now.

Second, the Ducks played outstanding defense and that was kind of in contrast to Pitt. At least that’s the feeling I got in watching. I thought libero Hali Hillegas, in particular, really struggled tonight. She certainly made some plays but, unlike the recent ChampYinz Tournament this weekend where she made the All-Tournament team, I don’t think she had a great night. The announcer made a great point in that Oregon was clearly targeting her, hitting the ball directly to her. Compounding her poor night was a few service issues.

Defensively, the Panthers really had some issues. Head coach Dan Fisher acknowledged that at intermission, even pointing specifically to the back row where the libero plays, obviously, without calling her by name. Hillegas hardly was alone in struggling, though, as I thought freshman setter Lexis Akeo didn’t have her best night, either, in setting the ball as I thought she was a little off at times. I give both credit — you could tell they were trying. But both, Hillegas in particular, also had a difficult time. I fully expect coaches to test her going forward and she should expect to see a lot of balls hit her way. But hey, again, part of that is because Pitt was facing a very good team.

But about Oregon’s defense, again, they played strong up front. They really responded well to Pitt’s hard hitters, doing a great job in digging balls out.

There were only a few opponents that really made it difficult for Pitt’s hitters last year and each time it happened, you kind of sat up and took notice. That just doesn’t happen much as Pitt has too many hitters for most teams to contend with. But that happened tonight. Even when Oregon had to scramble just to get the ball over the net and Pitt really set up their offense well, they really recovered well on defense and made the Panthers work for everything. There were times when Pitt’s hitters were just too much (say, if they had two really good sequences in a row setting up the offense) but Oregon’s defense was very tough on the Panthers.

And it would be fruitless recapping this game without mentioning Willow Johnson for Oregon. Johnson is the daughter of Randy Johnson (yes, that Randy Johnson) and just a fantastic player. She was all over the court and really gave Pitt fits. Unfortunately, she went down in the fourth set with what looked to be a pretty scary injury and, while it was near the end of the match, any chance the Ducks had at winning was gone right there. They looked lost without her and it’s a great example of what can happen when a team loses its star. They repeatedly went to her on offense and while they had other talented players, she was clearly the key. Hopefully she is okay and can get back on the court.

One thing that surprised me a little was Pitt didn’t use middle Sabrina Starks much. I was kind of disappointed to see that but it’s possible I missed her come in. She entered late in the match but I thought she could have played more — especially with the success that Johnson was having piling up kills. Van Buskirk and Ndee were mostly effective but, as I’ve said before, I think Starks adds a degree of athleticism that Van Buskirk doesn’t have.

Another thing I wanted to mention. We all know this was a great win but it was even more exciting — and I’ll tell you why. Pitt did not play its best volleyball. Fisher alluded to this at intermission and I fully agreed with him. The team looked downright uncomfortable at times and still managed to win the first set and nearly the second. The team played much better in the third and fourth. To win this kind of match with a couple of sets where you’re not at your best is very impressive. Simply put, you’ve got to feel great about what this team did tonight, despite the defensive deficiencies.

As an extension of that, you should know this was a very good Oregon team. Frankly, I don’t know if Pitt faced as good a team as them all last season. That team had its share of good victories and ultimately lost to Michigan in the NCAAs. But this Oregon team with Johnson in there was a great team.

If you think the team will get a break, think again. This weekend, they head on a trip to California where they’ll face a strong Cal Poly team Friday before a doubleheader on Saturday against No. 16 Utah and then Pepperdine. Very challenging weekend ahead.

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