On Friday, No. 6 Pitt volleyball had a field day in a decisive sweep over the No. 4 Penn State Nittany Lions.
In Sunday’s rematch? Not so much.
While Pitt ultimately lost, 3-2, it was a much closer match than Friday’s affair. All five sets were closely contested with two of them needing extra points. Penn State took the first, 28-26, before Pitt won the second, 25-21. Penn State won the third 25-21 but Pitt took the fourth, 25-20. In the fifth set, Penn State raced out to a fast 4-0 lead but had to go to extra points for a 16-14 win. It, quite literally, was anybody’s match. Pitt fell to 11-1 while Penn State improved to 7-2.
I went to the match today and the atmosphere was electric. It honestly felt like a basketball game. Really enthusiastic crowd, a ton of students, and the 5,195 in attendance set a new record for Pitt volleyball. I think you have to be careful about taking away a true home court advantage at the smaller Field House where you can pack fewer people in and make it seem louder. But for really big matches like this, I think it’s safe to say that the Pete provided a really nice home court advantage itself, even with most of the upper bowl empty.
To me, Pitt’s downfall was really the third set. Not that they didn’t threaten after that, but that was their chance to really take control of the match. They got up 8-1 and were cruising before Penn State methodically worked themselves back. Ultimately, Penn State went on a 24-13 tear and that really put Pitt on the ropes. They responded but, well, things could have been different if Pitt went up 2-1 there instead of falling behind by that margin.
Truth be told — I’m not sure how much better Penn State actually played today than even Friday. They were swept Friday but the sets were pretty close. Plus, their hitting percentage of .112 today was pretty weak and even slightly worse than the .129 they managed in the three-set loss. Rather, Pitt was constantly its own worst enemy. After hitting a blistering .337 against Penn State in the big win on Friday, they only hit .153 today. And while two extra sets were played, the 37 errors they had on Sunday was still significantly higher than the 13 they had on Friday. Penn State also had more errors per set today than they did Friday.
None of this is to suggest Penn State played poorly. They had fewer errors than Pitt today (34) and got some really outstanding efforts. Their middle Serena Gray had a relatively modest game with ten kills but there were stretches when she was flat out dominant. And Jonni Parker was all over the place for 17 kills, adding three aces. More than that, you have to credit their defense to being much of reason Pitt had so many errors.
If I had to sum up the difference between Friday’s match and Sunday’s match, it was that Pitt’s hitters were challenged far more on Sunday. That’s evidenced partly by the box scores as Penn State had 8 1⁄2 team blocks Friday to 17 today. Even beyond the actual blocks, Pitt had to sometimes score through pretty narrow spaces. At times, Penn State had three blockers up against an outside hitter. It just made it very difficult for Pitt to get off clean kill attempts, which obviously led to some of the hitting errors that landed out of bounds.
Disappointing result today since the match was so utterly close. A few less errors and Pitt would still be undefeated. Pitt got some great efforts from Chinaza Ndee (again), who is really coming into her own, and just a monster 23-kill performance from Kayla Lund. Those two were also the catalysts in Pitt’s win on Friday, again leading the team in kills. But you can’t be upset at a series split here that included a really dominant win. We’ll see how Pitt fares when the rankings come out but given Pitt won their match more handily, I think they should be ahead of Penn State in the polls. As I wrote last year, Pitt has had a difficult time getting respect in the rankings, so I’m not sure that happens. But they very clearly proved they belong in the Top 5 in the nation.
One thing to watch here is that senior hitter Nika Markovic was really less of a factor in these two matches. She would routinely challenge for the team lead in kills but was really nowhere to be seen this weekend. Markovic combined for only three kills in the two matches and, frankly, her numbers have dipped considerably all season.
After nearly leading the team in kills last year, she’s only fifth this season so far despite getting among the most time on the court. The emergence of Ndee and Layne Van Buskirk is part of that as fewer balls are going her way. That’s not necessarily her fault. After all, Markovic is still hitting .311 and is among the team’s leaders in that statistical category. If Pitt finds a way to work her more into the offense, the team could become even more dangerous as we know she’s an incredibly talented hitter.
The good news is that Pitt’s brutal non-conference slate with four ranked matches is over. The ACC will have some difficult challenges, including home/away series’ with barely ranked Florida State and Louisville teams. But the Panthers will not face anyone else on the schedule with the strength of Penn State or maybe even Oregon.
Next up is a road match against Virginia on Wednesday.