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USF shoots for rare third-round appearance

Riding on the back of its best Big East regular season, the USF volleyball team has a good opportunity to go someplace it’s never gone: past the second round of the Big East tournament.

But that’s far along, and the sixth-seeded Bulls are focused on third-seeded Pittsburgh (20-8, 12-2), which they meet Friday at 10 a.m. in Louisville.

“When you look at us statistically, we’re neck and neck in so many categories,” said USF coach Claire Lessinger. “It’s just a really fun matchup. We have to bring USF volleyball and we’ve got to bring it at our highest level. We’ve got to put a product together that is efficient and we really have to minimize our unforced errors.”

The Bulls (17-8), who have nine conference wins this year, lost in a five-set thriller to the Panthers in the regular season. And a win could set up a second-round match with Louisville, which USF swept on Nov. 6.

“(Pittsburgh is) playing some really good volleyball right now,” Lessinger said. “They’re real physical, offensively and defensively. We’re two good blocking teams that demoralize offenses. We’ve been working on being patient and finding ways to score.”

The Bulls and Panthers are close in the Big East rankings for hitting percentage at fourth and third, respectively. USF is second in the conference in holding its opponents, while Pittsburgh is fifth.

But history doesn’t bode well for the Bulls, who have lost twice in the first round in the last three years. For six seniors, it’s their last chance to make a run for a Big East championship.

“I’m just trying to be prepared, ready physically and mentally,” said outside hitter senior Marcela Gurgel. “(Pittsburgh) is a really good blocking team, but our offense has a lot of options. We can spread the ball around and make them guess where it will come from.”

A win will pit a matchup with the winner of the Cincinnati vs. UConn. Both teams beat USF in the regular season.