MANILA, Philippines – The UAAP Season 76 women’s volleyball tournament is hurtling towards an exciting finish as the defending champions De La Salle Lady Spikers and the upstart Ateneo Lady Eagles tangle for the last time in a winner-takes-all showdown on Saturday.
La Salle has been pushed to the brink by Ateneo, with their thrice-to-beat advantage all but gone as the Lady Eagles have beaten them in two of their last three encounters.
Although still formidable, the Lady Spikers will face their toughest test as they play in a do-or-die game for the first time all season, while the Lady Eagles – back in the finals for a third consecutive year – are playing a do-or-die game for a fifth time in the playoffs.
In the final game of the season, the usual suspects are expected to come up with big games for both La Salle and Ateneo. Former Rookie of the Year and MVP Ara Galang has led the charge for the Lady Spikers, exploding for 28 points in their Game 3 loss.
Meanwhile, Ateneo’s Alyssa Valdez has lived up to her billing as season MVP, with 22 points in Game 3.
ABS-CBN Sports volleyball analyst Noreen Go identified three players who will need to come up with even bigger games to help boost the chances of their team – two from Ateneo, and one from La Salle.
Go believes that the key players for Ateneo will be its two rookie starters – setter Julia Morado and Michelle Morente.
“Kung napansin niyo, every time Michelle Morente plays well, good things happen to Ateneo,” said Go, noting that Morente worked her way into the starting six after an injury to another rookie, Ana Gopica.
“That’s a good sign for (Ateneo), that Morente and Morado are playing like veterans. They’re playing with so much composure, which is good for the squad,” she added. “If Morente and Morado plays well, good things happen.”
Morado has drawn praises for her steady setting, and finished second in the Best Setter race – second only to La Salle’s Kim Fajardo. Morente, meanwhile, rebounded from a poor Game 2 performance with an 18-point output in Ateneo’s Game 3 victory.
“Sobrang deserving ni Mich, na kung sasabihin na siya ‘yung nagpapanalo,” Valdez had said after the game. “Sobra yung hard work niya. Everyone (else), parang injured na, so siya talaga ‘yung nags-step up.”
For La Salle, meanwhile, Go said the key player is – surprisingly – their captain, Abigail Maraño.
La Salle's Aby Marano dictates a play against Ateneo. Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com
Maraño is undoubtedly the emotional leader of the Lady Spikers, and she was seen exhorting and encouraging her teammates before the third set of Game 3, with La Salle already down two sets.
However, Maraño has only scored 29 points in three games so far, including the eight points she produced in Game 3. Most of the La Salle’s sets have gone the way of Galang, Mika Reyes, and even Cyd Demecillo.
Go said Maraño will have to assert herself offensively in Game 4 for La Salle to take control.
“Abi Maraño’s career has just been spectacular,” said Go. “But they have to get her involved. If you noticed, yes, Galang was spectacular, Mika Reyes played great, but Abi Maraño wasn’t too much of a factor towards the endgame in terms of scoring.”
“Yes, Ateneo defended well, but you have to live and die with your captain,” she stressed.
Maraño has made no secret of her desire to wrap up her storied UAAP career with a fourth consecutive championship, and vowed that the Lady Spikers will give their all in their first do-or-die match of the season.
“I think we need to think of more elements on how to win this time. Babawi kami,” she said.
Game 4 of the UAAP Season 76 women’s volleyball finals will be held on Saturday at the SM Mall of Asia Arena.