OMAHA- Pittsburgh Panthers Volleyball fell just short of a national championship, losing in tonight’s Final Four contest against ACC opponent and #1 seed Louisville in a tightly contested five-set affair.
For a minute after the conclusion of the fourth set; one in which the Panthers won after staging an improbable comeback, coming back from a 10-16 deficit to win 25-23, it felt like it could be destiny. Another number one seed would fall at the hands of an underdog Pitt squad in five sets, setting the Panthers on a course for a championship match with Texas.
And then the fifth set hit like an alarm on a Monday morning after a weekend out in Oakland. Title aspirations came crashing down, as Anna DeBeer and the Louisville Cardinals built up an 8-0 lead, eventually winning the fifth set by an unthinkable margin, 15-2.
This was by no means a one-sided affair, and in the end, it wasn’t really any sort of errors that did the Panthers in, but instead, a Louisville team that caught alight and couldn’t be extinguished no matter what Courtney Buzzerio, Serena Gray, and the rest of the Panthers threw at them.
The beginning of the first set would end up foreshadowing for what was to come, as the Cardinals jumped out to an early 6-0 lead off the back of some incredible serving from Anna DeBeer. She’d notch two of her five total service aces in her first rotation, quickly establishing herself as a dominant figure for the rest of the contest.
Pitt came storming back, tying it up at 9-9 on a kill from Chiamaka Nwokolo (8 kills on .429 hitting) but were unable to capitalize on that 9-3 run, as the Cardinals would regain the lead and not relinquish it for the rest of the set, winning the first 25-18.
The second set was a blow-for-blow affair. Neither team ever mustered a lead greater than four points, but Pitt would manage to hold on to their slim lead for a 25-23 set victory, winning on a Serena Gray kill assisted by Rachel Fairbanks.
The third set was a near replica, just with a different result. Following a 6-6 tie the teams would remain within three points of one another for the remainder of the set, but Louisville remained strong at the service line when it mattered most. Tied at 22-22, the Cardinal’s Elaina Scott hit two straight aces (Cardinals finished with 10) before a kill from AVCA first-team All-American Claire Chaussee sealed the deal on a set victory for the Cardinals. Chaussee led all players in kills for the match, with 25 kills on .429 hitting.
The fourth set was a comeback effort. Down 10-16 and facing the end of their season the Panthers played their best stretch of volleyball throughout the whole match. They would go on a 12-6 run that would leave the ball in the hands of Rachel Fairbanks to serve with the match, as well as the season, hanging in the balance. Fairbanks answered the call and continued her extremely strong postseason performance, winning three straight to force a fifth set.
The fifth set was a tough watch for Panther fans. With DeBeer serving for the Cardinals, Pitt was constantly scrambling for their second touch, leaving any attack attempts they could muster lacking in quality, frequently falling victim to a Louisville fifth set block party courtesy of Amaya Tillman and PK Kong, who would finish with a combined 18 of Louisville’s ridiculous 19 blocks. The clock struck midnight on Pitt’s season when a kill by Amaya Tillman sent the Cardinals to the championship for a date with the Longhorns, a bitter note on what was by all accounts one of the best seasons in Pitt sports history. The Cardinals represent the first-ever ACC team to make the national championship and good luck to them as they represent the conference.
Pitt ends the year 31-4, with a 17-1 record in the conference as well as a share of the ACC title. Courtney Buzzerio and Serena Gray were named first-team All-Americans, with Valeria Vazquez Gomez named to the second team, and Rachel Fairbanks to the third. Pitt had seven wins over teams ranked 15 or higher, a sign of the powerhouse that coach Dan Fisher is building.
With a very experienced roster this season, Pitt’s volleyball team is likely to look a lot different next year. Vazquez Gomez and Fairbanks will be asked to step up into big roles, filling the shoes of Gray and Buzzerio as they likely explore professional opportunities abroad.
Pitt Stats Leaders:
Kills: Buzzerio (13)
Assists: Fairbanks (29)
Digs: Klika (13)
Blocks: Nwokolo/Gray (4)