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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Underdog Cougar volleyball team tries to shake up NCAA Tournament against No. 1 seed Pitt

WSU fifth-year seniors Pia Timmer, left, and Magda Jehlárová celebrate against Cal Baptist last season.  (Courtesy of WSU athletics)

Top seeds have dominated the NCAA volleyball tournament thus far.

The four No. 1 seeds, four No. 2s and four No. 3s are in the final 16. Washington State was the lone No. 4 seed to advance as three No. 5s pulled mild head-to-head upsets over the other No. 4 seeds.

The Cougars wouldn’t mind introducing more surprises into a tournament that closely followed the selection committee’s seeding order on the opening weekend. It’ll be a tall order, literally and figuratively, when WSU (26-7) faces top-seeded Pittsburgh (27-4) at 11:30 p.m. Thursday at Fitzgerald Field House on Pitt’s campus.

Both teams are tournament regulars with eight consecutive appearances. Both are riding seven-game winning streaks, but Pitt has reached the past three Elite Eights and past two Final Fours.

WSU is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2018 and attempting to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 2002. The Cougars are packed with experience and talent. They’ve been driven by an “unfinished business” theme as they try to make a deep tournament run.

“When you have goals like that, you definitely don’t look at it as we’ve arrived or made it,” 13th-year coach Jen Greeny said. “You keep talking about what’s next.”

The Panthers are next, and they boast one of the nation’s top hitting and blocking teams. Ranked fourth in the latest AVCA poll, Pitt’s .306 hitting percentage is in the top five nationally. The Panthers are third in blocks per set (2.95) and limit foes to a .134 hitting percentage, No. 1 in the country.

The Panthers’ five main attackers are hitting at least .275 and stand between 6-foot-1 and 6-5. Julianna Dalton, a 6-5 junior outside hitter, played her freshman season at WSU before transferring to Pitt. She’s played in just 14 matches.

“They’re a very physical team, they have big hitters,” WSU three-time All-American middle blocker Magda Jehlárová said. “I would say this: Pac-12 play prepares us for playing such teams. Both sides are going to be very fiery, so I think it’ll be fun to watch for all the fans.”

The Cougars have some firepower of their own. They’re 11th nationally in hitting (.289%) – that ranks first in program history – and 41st in blocks per set (2.49), led by Jehlárová, WSU’s and the NCAA’s all-time blocks leader in the rally scoring era.

“We’re just very excited to be where we knew we belonged all along,” said grad transfer Iman Isanovic, who was second in kills (391) in her first year as a Cougar. “The secret is just trusting our side. We can only control what’s on our side of the net.”

No. 10 WSU was 7-4 against ranked opponents. The Cougars and Panthers have several common opponents. Pitt lost to BYU on a neutral court and to Oregon at Fitzgerald Field House. The Panthers split with Louisville and defeated USC last Saturday to reach their fourth straight Sweet 16.

The Cougars handled visiting BYU in four sets, split with Oregon and USC and lost in three at Louisville in the second match of the season.

The WSU-Pitt winner will face the winner of second-seeded Louisville and No. 3 Creighton for a spot in the Final Four.

“We scheduled the preseason to be pretty tough,” Greeny said, “just for a moment maybe like this.”