Ateneo players rejoice after scoring a point against La Salle. Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com
MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) - The fairy tale run of the Ateneo Lady Eagles continued as they stunned the 3-time defending champions De La Salle Lady Spikers in 4 sets to claim Game 1 of the UAAP Season 76 women's volleyball finals Wednesday at the SMART Araneta Coliseum.
Showing that they were not just an Alyssa Valdez team, rookie Michelle Morente and and veterans Amy Ahomiro and Ella de Jesus came up big for Ateneo as they bucked a poor opening set to win 17-25, 25-23, 25-13, 25-20.
"Sobrang saya namin, kasi 'yung hard training namin, sobrang nag-pay off. Lahat ng ginawa namin sa training, lumabas sa court," said Morente, who topscored with 17 points.
Despite having been off for 18 days and showing some signs of rust, it was still the Lady Spikers who claimed the first set, 25-17, after taking advantage of Ateneo's poor reception.
But the Lady Eagles came alive in the second set. Behind another strong effort from veteran libero DenDen Lazaro, their reception improved and their offense followed suit.
With Valdez being checked by the La Salle blockers, Morente and Ahomiro came up with key hits for Ateneo in the nip-and-tuck second set. Ahomiro put Ateneo at set point with a service ace, although she kept La Salle alive by committing a service error.
But Mika Reyes' attack went long, and Ateneo equalized, to the delight of Lady Eagles coach Anusorn "Tai" Bundit, who did his now familiar backwards jog at the sidelines.
"Sinabi sa amin ni Coach Tai na heart strong. Magaling kayo na players, kaya niyo. 'Yun lang ang mindset namin, na we are good players," said Morente.
Ateneo took the third set comfortably, 25-13, as La Salle succumbed to a variety of receiving errors. T
The Lady Spikers, the taller squad, only had four attack points in the set. The Lady Eagles' dominance in Set 3 was personified when the 5-foot-2 De Jesus, fondly called "The Ella-vator" by fans, blocked La Salle's Abi Marano and Cyd Demecillo in consecutive plays.
The Lady Eagles looked as though they were cruising to victory when they took a 19-11 lead in the fourth set, courtesy of an ace by rookie setter Jia Morado.
But La Salle did not go away quietly. With team captain Abi Marano at the helm, the Lady Spikers put together a 7-1 blast to threaten, 18-20, and were only down by two, 20-22, after Cyd Demecillo powered a spike through the Ateneo blockers.
Demecillo, however, hit her next spike long, and Ahomiro capped a splendid game with a quick attack to bring Ateneo to match point. Valdez, after being stuffed by La Salle blockers throughout the game, put an end to the contest with a spike that went through the Lady Spikers.
"La Salle was unbeatable for the whole tournament. They lost just two sets," said Ateneo team manager Tony Boy Liao. "Sabi ko sa kanila, pag nakakuha tayo ng set d'yan, mag-iiba ang complexion ng laro."
Valdez and Ahomiro finished with 16 points for Ateneo, while De Jesus added 12 points.
Demecillo topscored for La Salle with 16 points, while Galang scored 13 and Marano added 10.
With the win, Ateneo snapped La Salle's 30-game winning streak that dated back to Season 75. They are also the first team to win more than one set off the Lady Spikers all season.
La Salle lost for the first time since December 2, 2012, when they were beaten by the University of Santo Tomas in 5 sets. It was also their first loss in the Finals since February 2, 2012, when an Ateneo team led by Fille Cainglet and Dzi Gervacio beat them in four sets.
Ateneo entered the game as the underdogs, as La Salle swept the elimination round and carried a thrice-to-beat advantage in the Finals.
After today's victory for Ateneo, the Lady Eagles and the Lady Spikers are now in equal footing, as the Finals is now a virtual best-of-3 series.
"I was telling the girls, let's put the pressure on La Salle," said Liao. "Best of 3 na yan. Wala na thrice to beat. Ang pressure, nasa kanila na."
Game 2 of the Finals is on Saturday at the SMART Araneta Coliseum.