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When sophomore Viktoriia Lokhmanchuk entered the match early in the second set, it was just the second appearance of her collegiate career. Pitt senior Kayla Lund served the ball, and libero Lauren Hogan set it directly to Lokhmanchuk. The outside hitter found a hole in Pitt’s defense as the ball hit the ground in between two players.
After a five-set victory over the Atlantic Coast Conference favorite Pitt the previous day, Syracuse (2-0, 2-0 Atlantic Coast) came back on Saturday to beat Pitt (0-2, 0-2) in three sets. Head coach Leonid Yelin said that Syracuse made few adjustments between match one and two this weekend, but strong performances from bench players and mistakes by the Panthers helped the Orange hand Pitt its first straight-sets loss since August 2017.
“We played against a really, really good team,” Yelin said. “I don’t see much difference (in) the ways they are playing from the year before.”
SU and Pitt seemed to be evenly matched in the first set, with three lead changes early on. Then, an attack by Abby Casiano rolled across the top of the next and landed in bounds, giving Syracuse a 16-15 lead, one it would not surrender for the rest of the game.
A serve by Marina Markova clipped the net, while Pitt’s players stood still and watched as the ball landed directly in the middle of the court for an ace. Yelin subbed defensive specialist Berkley Hayes in for Markova on the next serve, and the Pitt bench yelled “out,” right before the ball landed five feet in front of the line for a second ace in a row. Three straight mistakes by the Panthers gave SU a commanding lead that set the tone for the rest of the match.
“They tried to make adjustments during (the) game,” Yelin said. “And I started feeling in the middle of the game, specifically the second game, we weren’t… playing volleyball.”
Hayes’ ace was one of several important plays from the bench during the match. In the third set, Lokhmanchuk acted quickly again after being subbed in, with an attack finding a hole in Pitt’s defense on the second rally after she entered the game. Lokhmanchuk accounted for four kills from SU’s bench, helping make up for Polina Shemanova’s eight kills, the second lowest total of her career and her first single-digit kill performance since her freshman year in 2018.
The Panthers entered the third set with the match on the line, something they had not experienced since 2018. In 2019, Pitt lost two sets in a game just four times, and never lost both of the first two. Pitt came out of the gate quickly, taking a 9-7 lead. However, two straight attacks from Pitt directly into an SU front line block tied the game at nine and changed the course of the set.
Later in the set, Markova served the ball to Pitt’s back row, but not a single Panther moved as they watched it hit the ground, just like in the first set. A Lokhmanchuk kill landed right on the line two points later. On the next play, Pitt’s setter misplayed the ball, and two Pitt players dove to the ground in a desperate recovery, sending the ball into the net on four touches. Pitt was plagued by errors throughout the match, while the Orange continued to cleanly attack and defend. Syracuse finished the final set on a 16-10 run, with four of those points coming on errors by Pitt.
“There really wasn’t much adjustment (between sets),” Yelin said. “They were falling behind, we started to get ahead in the middle of the game.”
At match point, setter Elena Karakasi stepped up to the backline and held the ball out in front of her with her right hand pressed against her hip. She took a deep breath before serving the ball deep to Pitt’s back row. A Pitt player bent down to pass the ball, but it just brushed her arms and landed on the ground beside her.
“That was just the best thing ever, to finish the game like that,” Karakasi said.
After Karakasi’s ace, SU players gathered in a group hug in the middle of the court, singing along to “Back to Back” by Drake to celebrate their second win in a row. There were no fans to celebrate the win, so they had to do it themselves to make up for it, Markova said.
On Friday night, Pitt and SU waved at each other postgame as a socially-distanced alternative to a high five line. Tonight, however, the Panthers did not wave back.
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