MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine women's volleyball team may have lost in straight sets to South Korea on Sunday, but they surely earned the respect of the powerhouse squad as they put up a ferocious challenge, especially in the first two sets.
Indeed, so game were the Filipinas that South Korea coach Sungjin Hong felt the need to field in his superstar, Kim Yeon-koung, in the final stretches of the first set as they struggled to close out the frame.
"KYK," as she is fondly called by volleyball fans, proceeded to display the attacking prowess that made her one of the very best players in the world. Kim ended the first set with a vicious crosscourt kill, and finished with 12 points while playing in all three sets.
It marked her longest court time so far in the 2017 Asian Women's Volleyball Championship. South Korea cruised to a 2-0 record in Pool C without their captain, and Kim only played briefly against Vietnam to ensure that they ended with a 3-0 record in group play.
"I'm so happy to play here," said KYK, who was greeted by a huge ovation from Filipino fans at the Alonte Sports Arena in Biñan, Laguna, when she subbed in late in the first set – even as her entry virtually guaranteed the South Koreans' win against the smaller Filipinas.
"Fans are so supportive… I didn't know that the Philippines had a lot of volleyball fans, but now I understand," said Kim, a towering 6-foot-5 open hitter who won MVP honors in the 2012 London Olympics.
Kim entered the game with Korea clinging to a 24-23 lead in the first set, after Abigail Maraño sparked the Philippines' comeback from a 19-24 deficit with two aces. KYK made her mark on the game immediately, firing a laser-sharp crosscourt attack that bounced off the arms of Alyssa Valdez.
She did not start the second set, but was sent in midway through the frame after the Philippines surged to a 14-11 lead. With KYK in the game, the Filipinas faded down the stretch. Kim then proceeded to start the third set – the first time she did so in the tournament – and converted all six of her attacks while also tallying two aces, to tow Korea to the straight sets win.
"I think the gym, the crowd was really, really good," KYK said. "Our team was really pressured, because of the people. But after the first and second set, we had our rhythm."
Kim, who plays club volleyball for Turkey's Fenerbahçe, observed that the Philippines had greatly improved from the time she first faced off against them.
"I think they are so much better right now," she said. "I saw them like, two or three years ago. They were not playing like that."
"I mean, they improved a lot," she added. "They are very young, so they can improve more than this."
South Korea played the Philippines in the 2015 edition of the AVC event, scoring a comfortable 25-8, 25-7, 25-8 win. KYK did not even have to play in that game as Kim Heejin led the way for them with 18 points.
Two years later, however, South Korea needed an extended appearance from Kim to bring down the determined Filipinas.
"I think they are really good," Kim said. "They have a lot of young players, so I think they are going to improve a lot in the future."
South Korea returns to action on Monday against Kazakhstan, while the Philippines play Vietnam in a preview of their Southeast Asian Games showdown.
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