Carly Skjodt saw her storied career flash before her eyes on Saturday night.
Michigan’s unanimous All-Big Ten First Team selection was held to just two kills on 20 attempts in the Wolverines’ first-set loss against 12th-seeded Pittsburgh (30-2 overall, 17-1 ACC).
Labeling Skjodt’s opening set performance as out of character would be an understatement. The Panthers came out with a well-crafted defensive gameplan devoted to hindering Skjodt, who averages the second-most kills per set in the Big Ten with 4.20. Unseeded Michigan (24-9 overall, 11-9 Big Ten) scrambled to find other options, and nobody took the reigns. Pittsburgh kept Skjodt bottled up for a set, but Michigan coach Mark Rosen knew it wouldn’t last.
“Because she’s Carly,” Rosen said with a chuckle. “She’s such an experienced player and she’s such a fighter. She’s our go-to kid for a reason. When she struggled in the first set, I wasn’t worried about it because I knew she was going to find a way to get it going.”
Following the first-set loss, Skjodt exploded for 18 kills and five blocks over the next four sets while guiding the Wolverines to a 19-25, 25-22, 25-17, 21-25, 15-9 upset victory in front of a hostile crowd of 2,405 at Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center in the NCAA Tournament round of 32.
“I thought she needed to take a little more of an aggressive approach to it,” Rosen said. “Carly’s default is to be very controlled and to try not to make errors. Sometimes we have to challenge her to really go after it a little bit more, and I thought she answered that really well after the first set.”
Rather than caving in, Skjodt answered the call. She elevated her game to the next level, and her seven kills in the second frame — one of which ignited a three-point scoring run to give Michigan a permanent lead at 22-19 — showed just how dominant she is at her peak. When the Wolverines’ lead was trimmed to 22-21 two points later, junior setter MacKenzi Welsh turned to none other that Skjodt. Like clockwork, she blasted a ball through the block to give Michigan its first set point.
The Panthers knew it was coming. The Wolverines knew it was coming. Everyone in the Petersen Center bleachers knew it was coming. Pittsburgh positioned a daunting double block of two All-ACC First Team selections — 6-foot-3 Layne Van Buskirk and 6-foot-1 Nika Markovic — on the outside pin, but Skjodt still found a way to produce a point when she was needed most.
“That was a turning point,” Rosen said. “They were frustrated. You could just see it — they had three or four miscommunications and their passing started to break down. We knew the pressure was on them as the host team and the higher seed.”
When Michigan smelled blood in the water, it struck.
The Wolverines raced out to an 8-3 lead in the third frame behind a five-point service run by sophomore defensive specialist Natalie Smith. Pittsburgh coach Dan Fisher, who was crowned ACC Coach of the Year last week, called a timeout to compose his Panthers, but nothing could stop Michigan’s freight train of an offense from clicking. Coming out of the timeout, Welsh continued to pilot an efficient offense, and the Wolverines registered a staggering .480 attack percentage en route to a convincing 25-17 win in the third frame.
With its season hanging in the balance, Pittsburgh made a major change to its system in the fourth set. Fisher opted to use a 6-2 — a system that features two setters who take turns running the offense depending on which one is in the back row at a given moment — by adding an additional setter to the Panthers’ initial offensive scheme. By doing so, Fisher gave his team an extra attacker on the right pin at all times.
The adjustment caught Michigan off guard — the insertion of a sixth attacker in Pittsburgh’s rotation called for major changes in the Wolverines’ blocking scheme.
Setters Kylee Levers and Kamalani Akeo seized an opportunity to revive a stagnant offense in the Panthers’ new system. The tandem recorded 24 and 28 assists, respectively, and navigated Pittsburgh to a .275 attack percentage — a figure which comfortably trumped Michigan’s .163 clip. The Panthers fended off a late slew of kills from Skjodt and freshman outside hitter Paige Jones to take the fourth frame, 25-21, and force a decisive fifth set as the crowd came to its feet in a standing ovation.
24 points later, the crowd rose once again. This time, they bolted for the exits in disbelief.
The only sound in Petersen Center was the shouts of Michigan’s enthralling celebration after its 15-9 fifth-set statement sent them to the Sweet Sixteen. The Wolverines’ dominance — highlighted by a season-altering 9-0 run that put them up 11-3 — was on full display throughout the set as they thrashed Pittsburgh by 363 attack percentage points and amassed seven of the their 12 total blocks.
“One thing we talk about in the fifth set is being the aggressive team,” Rosen said. “It’s like a sprint. You can’t start slow or passively. You need to get after it, and I thought the blocking showed up and we served really well.”
Led by Skjodt’s relentless will to win, Michigan won the sprint by a landslide — stunning the ACC champions in the process.
And why? Because she’s Carly.