On December 1, 2016, the Pittsburgh women’s volleyball team prepared for its first NCAA Tournament appearance under Dan Fisher. It was the Panthers’ first trip to the season-ending tournament in more than a decade, a tournament that would begin the following day against the Dayton Flyers, the 30-1 Atlantic 10 Champs.
“It was the worst practice we’d had in my life,” Fisher said.
He asked his players, “Are we nervous?”
“Once it becomes normal,” he told the Panthers, “you get used to this. We expect to win and we expect to be in tough environments.”
It is now very much normal for Pitt to be in the NCAA Tournament. Those jitters felt back in 2016, Fisher’s fourth season? Gone, exorcised by three consecutive ACC titles, its first Elite 8 appearance (2020), and first Final Four appearance (2021).
Now the Panthers are back again, looking positively cozy in the toughest of environments, playing the game at the highest of levels, with a thrilling, white-knuckler of a victory over defending national-champion Wisconsin on Saturday evening in the Wisconsin Field House, 23-25, 25-21, 25-21, 19-25, 15-13.
The victory puts Pitt back in the NCAA Tournament national semifinals, where the Panthers will meet Louisville, the other ACC co-champion, on Thursday in Omaha, Nebraska. They split their ACC matches this season.
“What a game,” Fisher said. “I don’t know how much I can tell you about the X’s and O’s. We just found a way. I’m very proud of this team. I’m proud that we’re doing it. We’re showing a lot of heart in some tough moments.”
It wasn’t easy. Never was. Never will be in the Field House, a venue at which Wisconsin had been undefeated in 2022 before Saturday night. Pitt watched an opening set 19-14 lead melt away, devolving into a 23-25 loss. It’s the type of loss that can break a team, and maybe that’s what may have happened to the Pitt of, say, 2019, or 2020. But this isn’t the Pitt of 2019 or 2020. This is the Pitt of 2022, “the hunters,” as senior middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo described them on Friday.
“We talk with our sports psychologist about having a hunter mentality, not being the hunted,” said Nwokolo, who finished with 12 kills and a team-high .458 hitting percentage. “Being the underdog and wanting to be the ones who are taking the big swings in the fifth set, not tipping and being soft. The hunter mentality is what we’re adopting going in. They’re a good team but we’re a good team too.”
Fisher alluded to as much during Friday’s press conference. Pitt, he said, is a team that “likes to take rips.” Wisconsin, on the other hand, is a team that blocks as well as any in the nation, a group that stuffed 23 in a single evening during Thursday’s five-set win over Penn State. It was a delicious matchup of the proverbial unstoppable force and the immovable object.
“We knew that was what we were up against the whole time,” said outside hitter Courtney Buzzerio, who finished with a team-high 18 kills. “They were blocking and we were covering and just working through it.”
Never had Pitt needed to work through adversity more than the fifth set on Saturday.
It began as well as any Panther could have asked, with Pitt racing out to a 7-2 lead, playing flawlessly while Wisconsin whacked four errors. Back and forth it went, neither side giving much, as Pitt maintained its five-point lead with just four to go, an 11-6 edge that seemed all but insurmountable.
But this is Wisconsin. This is the Field House. There is, it sometimes seems, nothing that is insurmountable to the Badgers at home. Suddenly Julia Orzol, who had been quiet during the first four sets, came alive, setting Sarah Franklin for a kill, then killing three in a row of her own. The lead was whittled to one. The Fieldhouse was a rollicking sea of red. The hunters had become the hunted. Timeouts from Fisher did nothing. His lone challenge did less. Anna Smrek tied it, then Orzol tacked on another kill to take the lead, 12-11.
What do you do if you’re Pitt? What’s it like to watch a five-point lead, for the second time in a single evening, flip into a deficit?
“We just hung in there and kept playing hard is the main thing that happened,” Fisher said. “And good things happened.”
Indeed, Pitt flipped the script once more, tying it back up at 13-13 on a Buzzerio kill, then reclaiming the lead with a bomb from Valeria Vazquez Gomez. On match point, there was only one place Panther setter Rachel Fairbanks was going: Buzzerio. On Friday, Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield lauded Pitt for the range of their setters, particularly in their ability to get it across the floor to the right sides. There was Buzzerio, on the right. There was Fairbanks, displaying the very ability Sheffield had scouted so well.
Didn’t matter if everyone in The Fieldhouse knew where that ball was heading, Buzzerio put down the final kill, and Pitt, somehow, hung on, winning a volatile, seesaw of a match in one of the sport’s most hostile environments.
“It’s really a special place,” Fisher said. “You can see what a volleyball town it is. It was an honor to be here.”
They will now move on to Omaha, Nebraska, home of another fanatical volleyball town. And they will be joined, unbelievably, by zero Big 10 teams, the first time in 16 years the most dominant conference has been frozen out of the Final Four. Instead, there will be two from the ACC, Texas of the Big 12, and either Stanford (Pac-12) or San Diego (WCC) on the other side of the bracket.
“I think we believe. We said it in the last press conference, we don’t know if we’re going to win but we know we can,” Fisher said. “That’s always been our mantra. I’m just really happy for these young women.”