MANILA, Philippines – (UPDATE 3) Showing remarkable resiliency, the Ateneo Lady Eagles kept their season alive with a thrilling -- and controversial -- five-set victory over the De La Salle Lady Spikers to force a winner-takes-all showdown for the UAAP Season 76 women's volleyball crown.
Ateneo blew a two-set advantage, was on the brink of defeat in the fifth set, yet still came out with a scintillating 25-21, 25-23, 18-25, 16-25, and 17-15 victory in front of a packed SM Mall of Asia Arena Wednesday.
"Lagi sa aming sinasabi ni Coach (Tai Bundit) na hangga't hindi pa nag-15 or nag-25 ang kalaban, hindi pa tapos," said Alyssa Valdez, the Season 76 Most Valuable Player. "Everyone played well lang talaga. Teamwork ang nag-work sa amin. Lahat ay nag-contribute."
Ateneo's Alyssa Valdez hugs a team mate following their thrilling Game 3 victory against La Salle on Wednesday. Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com
Ateneo already had two sets in hand when La Salle, so sluggish in their reception to start the game, came alive midway through the third set, and proceeded to dominate the rest of the way. The Lady Spikers continued their strong play in the fourth set, taking advantage of Ateneo's nine unforced errors to force a decider.
"Siyempre naman, it's La Salle," Valdez pointed out. "Yung experience nila sa Finals, sobrang mataas kesa sa amin. Parang ako, at si DenDen (Lazaro) and Ella (De Jesus) ang naglalaro (sa Finals before)."
La Salle raced to take a 9-6 lead in the fifth and final set after Ateneo's floor defense again broke down, but kills from Ella De Jesus and rookie Michelle Morente kept Ateneo alive.
The Lady Spikers took a four-point lead, 12-8, thanks to attacks from Ara Galang and Cyd Demecillo, but Amy Ahomiro sparked Ateneo with two kills and a block to cut the lead to one.
A surprise attack from La Salle setter Kim Fajardo made it 13-11, but Valdez came through with a crosscourt attack, Galang committed an attacking error, and Marge Tejada had an offensive block to put Ateneo at match point, 14-13.
La Salle, showing the heart of a champion, rebounded with two quick points from Galang and Mika Reyes to reach championship point, but Valdez -- with the help of the tape -- scored on another kill, then Morente beat the La Salle blockers to again put Ateneo at match point, 16-15.
The thrilling, nip-and-tuck contest ended on a controversial note when Fajardo was called for a violation in the last play while jousting with Valdez, and the point was awarded to Ateneo, sending the blue side of the stadium into frenzied celebration.
But the call also clearly drew the ire of the La Salle players and the coaching staff, who were seen complaining to the officials. The call by the first referee stood, however.
Ateneo has now won a do-or-die game for the fourth time this season, and has forced a winner-takes-all showdown for the women's volleyball crown on Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
It was a stunning victory for the underdog Lady Eagles, who looked as though they had completely collapsed in the fourth set while La Salle seized the momentum.
But behind their rallying cry of "heart strong," various players came up big for Ateneo in the final frame, as young players Morente and setter Jia Morado shook off their nerves to help complete the upset.
"Sa team namin, medyo nag-doubt din kami," Valdez admitted. "We didn't expect na we were two sets up, so medyo na-rattle kami. Pero sa end game, we just played. One team lang talaga. Solid lang talaga."
Valdez top-scored for Ateneo with 22 points (19 attacks), while Morente added 18 points (14 attacks). Ahomiro also contributed 18 markers, including seven blocks.
La Salle lost despite a 28-point explosion from former Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Galang, most of which came in the third and fourth sets as the Lady Spikers took control of the game. She had 22 attacks, five blocks, and one service ace to go along with 15 excellent digs for a splendid all-around game.
Cyd Demecillo scored 12 points, and Mika Reyes added 11 for the Lady Spikers.
The Lady Spikers also scored 39 points off unforced errors by Ateneo.
La Salle has all but lost the thrice-to-beat advantage that it earned by sweeping the elimination round, while also losing two of its last three games after a 30-game winning streak.
Surprising Ateneo takes first two sets
For a while, it seemed as though the defending champions were about to lose in straight sets. Ateneo rallied from deficits in both the first and second sets to take a surprising two-set lead, and send the predominantly La Salle crowd into an uneasy silence.
In the opening set, it was the veteran Ahomiro who got the better of Galang late, blocking the La Salle star twice in the last three plays to claim a 25-21 victory for Ateneo after the Lady Eagles had trailed most of the way.
The Lady Eagles played more fluidly in the second set, and took a 24-21 lead after Fajardo -- erratic all throughout the game -- committed a setting error. La Salle was kept alive by an offensive block from Reyes and a hitting error by Ahomiro, but Ahomiro redeemed herself with a quick attack to win the set, 25-23.
La Salle captain Aby Marano and coach Ramil de Jesus were seen exhorting the Lady Spikers before the third set, and the defending champions responded. After Ateneo took a 12-10 lead, La Salle reeled off eight straight points -- four from Galang -- to take control, and they never looked back.
That the game would go the distance seemed inevitable as Ateneo committed several unforced errors in the fourth set, giving free points to La Salle even as Galang continued to torch the Lady Eagles.
The four-peat looked to be in the bag for La Salle when they took a four-point lead in the final set, but Ateneo kept chipping away at the lead until Fajardo's crucial error finally gave the Lady Eagles the win.
Ateneo had drawn first blood in the series after a four-set upset of La Salle in Game 1, which ended the Lady Spikers' 30-game winning streak and rendered the Finals a best-of-three series.
But La Salle bounced back with their own-four set win last Saturday to move to within a game of clinching the title.