Knocking down the NCAA Tournament’s first hurdle has become an annual tradition for the Pitt women’s volleyball team.
Navigating the second has provided the Panthers with a roadblock.
After a 3-0 (26-24,25-18,25-15) win over Iona on Friday night at Petersen Events Center, the 12th-seeded Panthers won their first NCAA playoff game at home to put themselves in position for a third attempt in as many years to move into the Sweet 16.
“It’s an opportunity we may never have again,” said junior middle hitter Layne Van Buskirk, who finished with eight kills. “Not being at Penn State is awesome. … We really want to get to our goal, be in the Sweet 16.”
After losing in State College the past two seasons, Pitt will be at home again against Michigan at 7 p.m. Saturday. The Wolverines advanced with a 3-0 sweep of Navy.
By beating Iona, Pitt reached the 30-win plateau for the first time since 1990. This also was the first time Pitt, which is 6-13 all-time in the event, swept an opponent in the NCAA Tournament.
Nika Markovic, who led the Panthers with 16 kills, reached the 1,000-kill plateau during the match.
“Before the game, I wasn’t even thinking about it,” Markovic said. “Then during the game coach mentioned it and I was like whatever. I’m grateful for being here and am really happy to achieve that.”
Stephanie Williams and Kayla Lund tied for second with nine kills apiece. Lund left the match with an injury in the third set. Pitt coach Dan Fisher said he is not sure if Lund, the Panthers’ season leader in kills, will play against Michigan.
“It was a pretty balanced attack,” Fisher said. “It was good to get the first win off our chest because we hadn’t played since last Wednesday.”
Beating the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion Gaels, Pitt (30-1) had to overcome offensive sloppiness. Even with a noticeable size advantage, the Panthers weren’t crisp in the first set.
Pitt had a .167 hitting percentage and committed six attack errors.
“They are kind of like a pumped up us,” Gaels coach Patric Santiago said. “They aren’t big for the ACC, and they aren’t the Big Ten team that’s going to hit over the block. We weren’t as outsized as much as we thought as we might be as once we won our conference. We wanted to make sure we had a disciplined block and put our defenders in places to dig some balls.”
Despite 11 attack errors of its own, Iona had Pitt sweating things out.
Claire Archibald, who led Iona with 12 kills and had two assists, set up Jamie Smith for a kill to give Iona a 24-23 edge. Facing set point, the Panthers snapped out of their funk.
Markovic delivered two kills to put Pitt ahead. Chinaza Ndee and Stephanie Williams then blocked an attack from Smith to allow the Panthers to escape with a 26-24 win.
“I think it was more of us just getting back to us,” Fisher said. “I think our timing was off and were a little cued up. I think we went back to the speed of our offense and our hitters waited longer.”
Whatever plagued Pitt early didn’t linger. The Panthers raced to a 5-2 lead in the second set and hit at a blistering .462 pace.
Pitt used that momentum to move on. Now, the Panthers are hoping a home crowd will help them take the next step.
Pitt had an estimated crowd of 2,807 on Friday night.
“We are excited to have the advantage of playing at home,” Markovic said. “I think that is going to help us a lot, too. Having a lot of fans at the game is going to motivate us more.”
Josh Rizzo is a freelance writer.