The Pitt volleyball team pulled off the shocker of the NCAA Tournament with a thrilling five-set win over Minnesota on Sunday. The victory continues the team’s deepest march into the NCAA Tournament as they’ve reached the Elite Eight. Pitt will now face either Louisville or Washington for a trip to the Final Four.
Things started slowly for the Panthers who dropped the first set, 25-21 before rallying for a 25-23 win in Set 2. The Panthers got off to a dismal start in Set 3 before falling, 25-20 and then came back for a 25-21 win in Set 4. Pitt then took the final set 15-11.
So what did I think? Surprised? Eh, probably a little, I suppose — particularly after the team dropped the first set. Pitt played okay in that first set but I figured they were probably outgunned just a little. Minnesota is full of quality players, including Stephanie Samedy who was just a really dominant hitter. I thought Pitt could perhaps contend but after losing that first set, even taking a single set seemed like it would be an uphill battle. Pitt got next to nothing out of Kayla Lund, its best player, and I just didn’t see them taking three out of the next four sets. That Pitt pushed it to five sets turned out to be unexpected — so you can imagine how winning it feels like.
As the match went on, Pitt just got more comfortable. That’s the best way I can say it. Lund got into a groove finishing with 17 kills and the Panthers were led for the second match in a row by Chinaza Ndee, who had 19. Chiamaka Nwokolo had a surprisingly outstanding game with 13 kills and a bonkers .647 hitting percentage. She was really the one that sort of came out of nowhere or Pitt today. Lund and Ndee had their fair share of errors (each with nine) but Nwokolo managed only two. That sort of offset lesser performances by Sabrina Starks and Jordan Lockwood.
This team just manages to find new players to lean on. That’s the strength, I think. Lund and Ndee are the stars, sure. But sometimes it’s Valeria Vazquez Gomez, the terrific freshman. Or its Starks. Or today, it’s Nwokolo. Pitt lost three key players last year in Stephanie Williams, Layne Van Buskirk, and Nika Markovic but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. This team is very potent offensively and that includes the great setting combination of Kylee Levers and Lexis Akeo.
Speaking of, let me say this, too. Akeo had such a great year last year as a freshman, I was hesitant as to how Levers would fit back into the mix after missing last year due to injury. When Pitt decided they would play both, I wasn’t sure how that would work out and if it would disrupt Akeo’s flow. But it’s turned out to be a great decision. Both have been good but Levers is probably slightly better. Some of the sets she made today, honestly, were otherworldly. Playing both of them was absolutely the right thing to do and it’s benefited the team tremendously. I underestimated just how good Levers was.
The importance of the win can’t really be understated. It obviously moves Pitt forward in the tournament and gives them a very realistic shot at reaching a Final Four (they will face the winner of Louisville, a team they’ve split with this season, and Washington). The Golden Gophers are probably the best team they’ve faced this year and they passed that test.
Beyond that, though, the win is significant from a program perspective. For many years, the ACC has not been taken too seriously in volleyball. They got four teams into the tournament this year, which was quite good, given the field was shortened to 48. But it has still long been held behind powerhouses like the Big Ten and PAC-12. There’s been largely good reason for that but even in years when Pitt could legitimately stack up against teams from that conference, the rub has always been that they aren’t as good as their record because of playing in a weaker conference.
That started to change a little when Pitt swept Penn State on the road in 2019. But the program’s perception took another hit with a disappointing loss to an unranked Cincinnati team in the second round of the NCAA’s last year. Pitt winning a match against a team like Minnesota is very important for helping to improve the perception of the program. That will hopefully carry over into how they are treated in the rankings and, more importantly, future NCAA Tournament seeds.
Pitt certainly deserved to be slotted higher than a team like Utah. That much is clear. They had a slightly better record, had more impressive wins, and a much higher RPI. Yet, there the Panthers were, unseeded, largely based on perception. I am hopeful that a win like this really opens eyes and shows that Pitt deserves better consideration in the future. Ranking a team like Utah ahead of Pitt this season in the tournament, frankly, was a slap in the face.
Not much more to say. Just a really big win for a program that is continually on the rise.
Be sure to join Cardiac Hill’s Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.