MANILA, Philippines -- (UPDATED) University of Perpetual Help displayed remarkable fighting heart to stun De La Salle-College of St. Benilde (CSB) in a thrilling five-set war to advance to the finals of the NCAA Season 94 women's volleyball tournament.
In their do-or-die showdown in the Final 4 on Tuesday, the Lady Altas booked a 25-17, 27-29, 19-25, 26-24, 16-14 triumph over the top-seeded Lady Blazers at the FilOil Flying V Centre in San Juan.
In the process, the Lady Altas advanced to the NCAA finals for the first time since Season 89, when a Royse Tubino-led squad defeated San Sebastian.
They will play two-time defending champion Arellano University in the best-of-3 series starting Friday. The Lady Chiefs have been waiting in the finals since last week, after dispatching of third-seeded San Beda University in their own Final 4 series.
Perpetual Help, seeded fourth in the semifinals, defeated the Lady Blazers last week in four sets to force a do-or-die game.
"Mental toughness," Perpetual Help coach Macky Cariño said of what keyed their win. "Sabi ko sa kanila, hangga't 'di natatapos ang game, huwag tumigil sa kakalaban. Sa last few games namin, ganoon na ang tine-train namin."
"Kasi ang team ko, kapag nada-down, medyo nade-demoralize. So 'yun ang dinevelop namin. Sabi ko, mental toughness all throughout -- 'yun ang magpapanalo sa amin," he added.
Graduating star Cindy Imbo was spectacular, putting up 32 points on 29 kills, one block, and two aces to spark the Lady Altas' triumph. She also had 14 digs and 11 receptions in a heroic performance for Perpetual Help. Jenny Gaviola was the only other Lady Alta in double-digits, with 10 points.
Brimming with confidence after their win over CSB last week, the Lady Altas took one step towards the finals with a comfortable win in the opening frame. Imbo, in a preview of what was to come in the final set, took charge down the stretch to lift her team to victory.
Both teams showed their grit in a back-and-forth second set where no lead was safe. CSB seized a 23-21 lead, only for Imbo to orchestrate a 3-0 blast that put Perpetual Help at set point, 24-23. They went blow-for-blow in the ensuing rallies, with the Lady Blazers saving three more set points. A service error by Perpetual Help captain Bianca Tripoli knotted the count at 27.
From there, Rachel Austero scored a massive block of Imbo to put CSB at set point, 28-27, and Felicia Cui fired an ace for the win. Cui was the catalyst for the Lady Blazers' comeback in Set 2, coming off the bench to hit crucial shots.
With momentum firmly on their side, CSB raced to a massive 15-2 lead in the third frame as the Lady Altas appeared shaken. Austero found her rhythm on offense, while the Perpetual Help spikers made attack errors repeatedly. The Lady Altas did go on a late run, even trimming the lead to 5 points, 23-18, but committed service errors that sealed their doom.
The Lady Blazers appeared headed for the finals after surging to a 22-12 advantage in the fourth set. But the Lady Altas worked their way back slowly but surely, as Cariño went to his bench for a spark plug. Hannah Suico provided that spark, before Imbo took charge down the stretch. From a 10-point deficit, the Lady Altas seized set point, 24-23, thanks to back-to-back kills by Imbo.
A service error by Suico knotted the count, but CSB's Klarissa Abriam also threw away her serve, before Imbo checked the ball off the CSB blockers to complete Perpetual's come-from-behind win.
"Nagpe-pray ako sa lahat ng sets, lalo na po noong naghahabol kami sa fourth set," Imbo said afterward. "Nagtiwala lang ako sa sarili ko, sa mga teammates ko."
In a back-and-forth fifth set, it was CSB that zoomed ahead, 10-7, as Austero asserted herself at the net. Imbo, however, would not be denied. She anchored a 6-0 run, repeatedly outsmarting the CSB blockers, as Perpetual took a 13-10 lead.
CSB struck back with two straight points -- off an Abriam kill and an Imbo error -- before the veteran made up for her miscue with another off-the-block hit to put the Lady Altas at match point, 14-12.
An error by Imbo and a quick strike at the net by Chelsea Umali forced an extension, 14-all. But Imbo refused to let Perpetual Help down: she fired another hit off the CSB blockers for their second match point, 15-14, before trooping to the service line. There, she scored an ace off CSB's Marites Pablo to complete their win, which lasted two hours and 36 minutes.
"Gustong-gusto namin talagang manalo," said Imbo, who repeatedly asked for the ball in the fourth and fifth frames.
Austero scored 17 points in her final game for CSB, with 11 points and 4 blocks. Abriam had 16 points, and Umali had 14. Cui had 11 points off the bench.
Perpetual Help's offense got it done, as they had 58 kills to CSB's 49. CSB setter Jewel Lai had 31 excellent sets to only 11 for her Perpetual counterpart, Necelle Gual.
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