Coming into tonight, there were obvious questions about whether Pitt or Penn State had the better team. That tends to happen when you’ve got two teams ranked in the top six in the nation.
But after a sweep by the Panthers over the Nittany Lions, there were no questions left to be asked.
Pitt took the first set in dominant fashion, easily winning 25-17. The second was closer, but the Panthers still managed a 25-21 win. And while Penn State rallied at the end of the third, Pitt won that one as well, 25-23. The Panthers remain unbeaten at 11-0 while Penn State falls to 6-2.
Few would have expected the match to turn out the way it did. Pitt, of course, was fully capable of winning this match. But sweeping it on the road? I’m not even sure they expected that. Pitt has swept plenty of teams this season but the No. 4 team away from home? Safe to say this one was more lopsided than anyone could have predicted.
Make no mistake here — Penn State is good. Very good. This is not running over an opponent that isn’t as advertised. The Nittany Lions had swept all of their opponents this season, except in their lone loss. That loss, by the way, came against No. 1 Stanford. Among their victories was a sweep over No. 10 Oregon. This is a landmark win not only for the program (after all, it’s Pitt’s first win over Penn State since 1987) as a whole but is a great win for this season.
Of note is that Sabrina Starks got the start in the middle over Layne Van Buskirk. I know that will surprise some folks and it surprised me a little. But if you’ve been reading my recaps, you know that I’ve touted Starks as the more athletic of the pair. Van Buskirk continues to be a very good player for Pitt but Starks’ athleticism can’t be denied. And neither disappointed tonight with both having very strong games. The move paid off with Pitt setting a great defensive tone from the start up front, and Starks was right in the middle of it. Given how things worked tonight, it’s hard to imagine a change will be coming anytime soon.
I would doubt this has much of a negative effect from a chemistry standpoint. Van Buskirk rotated in quite a bit and still got a lot of playing time. But seeing Starks get the start on paper was still a bit of an eyebrow raiser.
Pitt got some great play from plenty of players. Kayla Lund, as she almost always is, was fantastic. But one player that really stepped up was Chinaza Ndee. Ndee sort of sits between being a middle and a hitter, and she can adequately play both. She really did a nice job on the outside tonight. I don’t know how many kills she wound up with but it seemed like it was more than normal.
Pitt’s blocking up front was as best as I’ve ever seen it. I don’t know what the totals were but the Panthers were repeatedly stuffing the Nittany Lions at the net. Some of that was due to Starks in the middle but others, like Van Buskirk, and the hitters all played roles. Equally impressive was the defense as a whole. A while back we saw libero Hali Hillegas struggling a bit but she was fantastic tonight. Penn State played some great defense, too, but Hillegas and Pitt’s front line were simply better.
On Sunday, Pitt will turn around and host Penn State at the Pete. We’ll find out soon enough if the Panthers are this much better or if the Nittany Lions can pose a bigger challenge.
Either way, Round 1 goes to the Panthers.