When Pittsburgh arrived at Power Gym on Sunday afternoon for a matchup with Boston College volleyball, the two teams were a combined 10-0 in ACC play. While that wasn’t much of a surprise for the No. 3 Panthers—they were picked as the conference’s preseason favorites—it was for the Eagles, who slotted in at 12th in the coaches poll.
And, for three impressive sets, BC hung with Pittsburgh. But, in a match that featured 18 ties and two or more lead changes in every set, the Panthers—who entered having won 15 of 16 sets in conference play—came away with the 3-0 victory to hand Jason Kennedy’s Eagles their first ACC loss of the year.
Jewel Strawberry led all players with 14 kills for BC (14-5, 5-1 Atlantic Coast), but the Eagles hit just .112 to Pittsburgh’s (18-1, 6-0) .171 percentage and fell 25-23, 25-22, and 25-23. The Panthers were paced by a trio with double-digit kills, as Chinaza Ndee, Layne Van Buskirk, and Kayla Lund combined for 32. Ndee and Sabrina Starks, who stands an imposing 6-foot-2, made up a formidable front line for Pittsburgh, too, totaling 11 and 13 blocks respectively.
The game opened with a sloppy first set, with the Panthers—who entered leading the conference in attack percentage—committing 11 errors while BC had nine. Pittsburgh was able to jump out to a 7-2 lead on the strength of kills from four different players, but the Eagles demonstrated their resilience for the first of many times in the afternoon. They pulled even at seven apiece, and then errors from Pittsburgh’s Lexis Akeo, Ndee, and Lund, as well as an ace from Strawberry, gave them their first lead at 14-13. The Panthers responded by rattling off four points, prompting a Kennedy timeout before Pittsburgh claimed three of the next four points to build a 19-15 lead.
A pair of Amaka Chukwujekwu kills got BC right back into it, and a Jill Strockis service ace tied the score at 20. The teams traded points before a Lund kill and a Strawberry error handed the Panthers a 24-22 edge and set point. Strawberry bounced back after a timeout with a kill, but then had an attack error, which locked up the set for Pittsburgh.
In the second frame, the script was flipped—this time, it was the Eagles who surged out to an early lead. Playing with confidence after nearly taking the first set, BC jumped out to a 8-3 advantage, thanks to three blocks from Chukwujekwu and a pair of Strawberry kills. The Panthers worked their way back into the set, though, and erased a five-point deficit with a decisive 9-0 run. While the Eagles again fought their way back, cutting it to just a one-point game, Pittsburgh had enough of a cushion to just trade points and eventually win the set on a Ndee kill. She was set up by the freshman Akeo, who had a strong game and led all players with 44 assists.
The final frame mirrored the second, with BC coming out firing. It staked its way to a 10-4 lead, drawing a pair of Pittsburgh timeouts in the process. Strawberry had four early kills and the Eagles led by eight at the halfway point. That momentum fizzled, though, and the Panthers gradually climbed back into the game by taking 15 of the next 22 points to eventually equalize at 20-20. After swapping scoring plays, BC’s Cat Balido recorded a pair of kills that put the Eagles up, 23-22, with a chance to get to set point. Ndee came up with a kill to tie it up, however, and then Stephanie Williams gave Pittsburgh its first lead since the first point of the set at 24-23. Then, on match point, an attack error from Chukwujekwu sent BC home disappointed that its strong play hadn’t translated into a single set victory.
While the Eagles didn’t win, the performance demonstrated just how far they’ve come under Kennedy. In 2017, BC dropped a lopsided three-set decision to the Panthers—in which it hit .314—and it was in the midst of a five-game losing streak. This season, the Eagles held the ACC’s top team to a sub-.200 hitting percentage, well below Pittsburgh’s season average of .279, and were competitive in each set. With six conference games under its belt, BC looks less the part of the 12th-ranked team in the ACC and more of one that could start to challenge the conference elite.
Featured Image by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor