|The Ateneo Lady Eagles celebrate after scoring a point against the National University Lady Bulldogs in their Final Four game. Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com
MANILA, Philippines – A veteran Ateneo squad outlasted the National University (NU) Lady Bulldogs in a thrilling four-set encounter to force a winner-takes-all showdown for the last Finals berth in the UAAP Season 76 women’s volleyball tournament.
The Lady Eagles, seeded third in the step-ladder semi-finals, overwhelmed the Lady Bulldogs in the opener, bucked a second set meltdown, and then proved to be the steadier team in the third and fourth sets as they registered a 25-17, 12-25, 31-29, and 28-26 victory Wednesday at the Arena in San Juan.
Three players scored in double-digits for Ateneo, with star Alyssa Valdez coming up with 29 points, while Ella de Jesus added 16 and rookie Michelle Morente came up with 12 markers.
The victory allowed Ateneo to stay alive in the Final Four, but the Lady Bulldogs – armed with a twice-to-beat advantage – will have another chance to claim the last Finals berth on Saturday at the Araneta Coliseum.
Defending champions De La Salle University, which swept the elimination rounds, is already waiting in the Finals and will have a thrice-to-beat advantage.
“Priceless ‘yung feeling,” De Jesus said after the game. “Lahat ng pinaghirapan namin araw-araw, mula sa umpisa, nag pay off sa huli.”
NU swept Ateneo in both of their meetings in the eliminations, but the Lady Eagles sent a quick statement when they ran out to a 25-16 victory in the opener as the Lady Bulldogs struggled to get their offense on track.
The Lady Bulldogs took advantage of Ateneo’s errors in the second set to equalize, setting up a classic third set that saw the two squads trade points most of the way.
Set 3 was tied 20-all after a Gayle Valdez service error when NU unleashed a 4-1 scoring blast anchored on veteran Carmina Aganon, which put them at set point, 24-21. A timeout by Ateneo coach Tai Bundit energized the Lady Eagles, however, and they unleashed four straight points to take a 25-24 lead.
It was another back-and-forth contest from that point, as the two squads waited on who would blink first. A quick attack by NU rookie Jaja Santiago put NU at set point for the last time, 29-28, but she subsequently committed a service error to keep Ateneo alive.
NU practically gift-wrapped Set 3 for Ateneo as team captain DinDin Santiago uncharacteristically committed a digging error and a hitting error that gave the last two points of the frame to the Lady Eagles.
The Lady Bulldogs, looking to force a do-or-die fifth set, raced to a 7-3 lead in the fourth, only to succumb to a variety of receiving and unforced errors that allowed Ateneo to again make it a nip-and-tuck game.
NU took a late three-point lead, 21-18, but Ateneo, showing veteran composure, slowly chipped away to tie the set at 22-all off a service ace by De Jesus.
A clever drop shot by Aiko Urdas put NU at set point, 24-23, but Valdez made sure it would be another extended set with a kill that tied the set. It was also Valdez who put Ateneo at match point, 26-25, with a service ace, before Urdas tied the game for the last time with a kill of her own.
With Valdez at the back row, the veteran De Jesus took over for Ateneo, scoring the last two points of the match with back-to-back off-the-block hits, sealing the win for the Lady Eagles.
Ateneo won the match despite giving away 42 free points to NU off unforced errors, which they made up for by scoring 55 points off attacks. Valdez had 24 points off spikes, along with two aces and three blocks.
Jaja Santiago topscored for NU with 17 points, while older sister DinDin added 13 markers. But the Lady Bulldogs’ other attackers – Urdas, Aganon and Myla Pablo – blew hot and cold throughout the game.