The Pitt volleyball team won its match against No. 14 overall seed Utah in the NCAA Tournament in impressive fashion. The Panthers dominated the match, sweeping the Utes, 25-16, 25-18, and 25-19.
Yes, I expected the Panthers (18-4) to have a great chance to win. Utah, as I wrote, was overseeded and Pitt really had little trouble with them. Still, seeing them win the match with relative ease wasn’t something I expected. Utah was not trounced and Sets 2 and 3, in particular, were competitive. But the Panthers did not allow the Utes to reach even 20 points in any of the three sets. It just wasn’t as close as you might have expected it would be.
It’s funny. I wrote last night after Pitt’s opening round win against LIU that I wondered what sort of effect Utah not playing in so long would have. Utah had the benefit of being rested but, like Pitt was early on in the LIU match, unexpectedly kind of rusty. Their offense was out of system for much of the night and Pitt just sort of overwhelmed them a bit. At least it felt that way. And I honestly think Pitt benefited from having a match yesterday. They just looked a bit more focused tonight as opposed to that first set against LIU that was a nailbiter.
The Panthers’ offense was quite strong. I don’t have the final tallies yet but Pitt hit very well and were led by senior Chinaza Ndee who had an incredible 17 kills. Kayla Lund played well and the Panthers also got contributions from the likes of Valeria Vazquez Gomez, Jordan Lockwood, and Sabrina Starks. And man, I thought Kylee Levers and Lexis Akeo just set the heck out of the ball. They always do, so that wasn’t surprising, I guess. But they really looked sharp tonight. Everything was really clicking.
But even more impressive may have been the defense. Again, no idea what the final numbers would show but Pitt got a lot of digs and had something like ten blocks, significantly above their average of 2.6 per set. Utah seemed stymied and it was a really strong performance by Pitt.
One takeaway here for me — this isn’t an upset, folks. It will be headlined as such (mostly because Utah has been the only seeded team to lose so far and the emphasis will be on that) but Pitt was the better team by a significant margin. That isn’t to talk trash against Utah, who has some very good players. But the Panthers were just more complete and, regardless of the seed, there’s little doubt that Pitt is a better team.
The other really big takeaway is that it was mentioned on the broadcast that this is the first time Pitt has gotten past the second round in the NCAA Tournament. The last few years have included some disappointing losses to the likes of Michigan and Cincinnati. So it was really important to clear that hurdle. You could see what it meant to the players, too — most of which had endured the embarrassing upset loss last year to the Bearcats. Players were crying and celebrating almost as if they won the whole shooting match. And good for them — this was a big monkey to get off of their collective backs and it’s nice to remove the stigma of not having advanced to the Sweet 16 despite having some top ten teams the last few years.
Things get tough from here on out. Next up for Pitt is the No. 3 overall seed in Minnesota. After an opening round by, the Golden Gophers swept Georgia Tech, a team that the Panthers also swept. I don’t know that it’s quite the uphill battle that some will make it out to be but Pitt is very clearly the underdog here. Minnesota is not only in the tougher conference, the Big Ten, but also has a better record at 16-2.
Pitt’s going to need all they have to pull off a win in that one. But, hey, there’s no way I’d count them out. The Panthers are legitimately among the hottest teams in the nation and haven’t lost a match since last fall.
Game on —