No. 7 BYU women’s volleyball’s season ends in sweep against No. 2 Pitt

Surely, this time would be different.

Surely, BYU women’s volleyball would be able to exorcise the demons of last year’s painful loss to Purdue, get over the hump and finally burst into the last sixteen of the NCAA tournament once again.

It was a familiar foe in a familiar place, and it was different — just not the way the Cougars had imagined.

Outside hitter Courtney Buzzerio led the way with a career-high 23 kills, setter Rachel Fairbanks logged a triple-double with 10 kills, 28 assists, and 13 of the team-high 58 digs, and the no. 2 seed Pitt Panthers (29-3) used a spectacular defensive performance to advance to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament for the third straight time in a three-set sweep (25-21, 25-22, 25-18) over no. 7 seed BYU (22-7) on Saturday night in front of 2,814 fans at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“Really proud of our group and the match they played tonight,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. “Congratulations to Pitt on advancing. They’ve been great hosts and I wish them all the best in the tournament.”

The two teams met previously on September 3 in the championship of the BYU Nike Invitational, with the Panthers grinding out a four-set victory. And just like at the Smith Fieldhouse where they snapped BYU’s 30-match win streak at home, Pitt once again hit .299 for the match.

The WCC runner-up Cougars, on the other hand, hit .260 on that September night. This time, they still hit a respectable .236 with only nine attack errors, and out-blocked the bigger Panthers, 9.0 to 3.0.

But they were unable to figure out a stingy Pitt floor defense that just wouldn’t allow the ball to go down.

Olmstead stated she was impressed by the Panthers’ never-say-die attitude on the defensive end, which she explained was different from the first meeting. “They were getting up some of our best shots and we ended up having trouble scoring,” she stated. “We just didn’t have enough kills to match them, and [their defense is] what ended up being the difference.”

It was a strong start for both teams in the first set as each side traded blows throughout the first 20 points of the match. But the Panthers went on a 4-1 run midway through the set to open up a four-point lead they would not relinquish. The Cougars were able to fight off one set point on a kill by Erin Livingston before Pitt middle Chiamaka Nwokolo finished off the first with a side-out kill.

Livingston, who finished with 13 kills, discussed the team’s ability to fight back has been a hallmark all season long. “We just come in the huddle and have tons of energy,” she said. “That alone helped us a ton just to go on some runs.”

Thus BYU responded with some of that fight.

After the Panthers raced to an early 6-2 lead in the second set, Olmstead burned her first timeout. Then, following a rare double contact call on Bower, the Cougars stormed back with the next five points to tie the set at seven. The Panthers answered with a run capped by a service ace by Cam Ennis to once again lead by four at 14-10. BYU would not quit, chipping the deficit to two at 16-14, but the Panthers once again responded to open up a five-point lead at 23-18 following a kill by Serena Gray.

That’s when BYU’s block woke up.

Following kills from Eden Bower and Livingston, forcing Pitt coach Dan Fisher to call a timeout, the Provo Roofing Company threw up back-to-back blocks, with Gneiting in on both of them. But the momentum was soon stymied by a service error coupled with a kill from Panthers’ opposite Valeria Vazquez Gomez, allowing Pitt to escape with the second set.

“I thought the second set was one of our better sets,” Olmstead said. “We just couldn’t capitalize at the end; we just were getting ourselves in too big of a hole to fight back.”

The final set was all Panthers. After starting the set up 6-2, Pitt broke open the match with a 5-0 run to explode in front by 10 points at 16-6. Despite the Cougars’ best efforts, the Panthers were able to comfortably side out to the victory, claiming the set and the match.

“There really weren’t any surprises; they’re a well-balanced team,” Olmstead stated. “We just weren’t quite clean enough to match them.”

It was an all-too-familiar ending for BYU, who also ended last season in Pittsburgh after falling to Purdue in the Sweet Sixteen in the Steel City. This time, the host Panthers sent the Cougars home, and so ended the careers of six BYU seniors — including starting setter Whitney Bower and starting middle blocker Heather Gneiting.

“We faced a lot of adversity this year, more than I’ve had in previous years,” Bower (25 assists, four kills, seven digs) explained. “I thought our coaches did a great job at problem-solving and I appreciate how we just came out with nothing to lose.”

“I’m just super proud of this team,” Gneiting (five kills, seven blocks) said. “I’m grateful for the belief we fostered as a team and hopefully we can take these things and learn from them.”

Now, BYU will look forward to the offseason in preparation for their first season in the Big 12 Conference in 2023.

Olmstead said she’s proud of the season her team has put together. “We’ll cherish this opportunity and be grateful for it,” she said.

Livingston added her love for the team, including the seniors like Bower and Gneiting.

“BYU is a special place to play,” she said. “I’m just super proud of this team and the fight and energy we had all season long.”

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