MANILA, Philippines -- A slow start and a poor first set failed to dent National University's confidence in Game 1 of their UAAP Season 81 men's volleyball Finals series against Far Eastern University on Saturday at the Araneta Coliseum.
Instead, the Bulldogs slowly but surely made adjustments, then stood firm down the stretch of the second and third sets before closing out the Tamaraws in four frames. The 21-25, 25-23, 25-23, 25-18 triumph put them on the cusp of a second consecutive UAAP championship.
It was the exact response that NU coach Dante Alinsunurin expected from his veteran squad. The Bulldogs have made the Finals for seven consecutive seasons, and players such as Bryan Bagunas, Francis Saura, Kim Malabunga, and James Natividad are no strangers to the biggest stage in men's volleyball.
The Tamaraws, in contrast, are all first-timers, as FEU is playing in the championship stage for the first time since 2013.
"Sinabi ko lang sa players ko na hindi namin galaw 'yun," Alinsunurin said of his instructions after their first set loss, which saw FEU pull away midway through and fend off the Bulldogs down the stretch.
(I just told my players that that's not how we play.)
"Yung sistema ng laro namin, nawawala. Sa receive namin, sa pattern namin sa depensa at sa blocking, pati sa receive natin. Sabi ko lang, kung ano ine-ensayo natin, gawin lang natin," he added.
(The system of our game was fading. In our receive, the pattern of our defense and blocking, even in our receive. I just said let's do what we practiced.)
"Wag masyado mag-relax. Basta ang importante, alam natin ang ginagawa nila and adjust lang ng kaunti sa ginagawa nila."
(Don't relax too much. What's important is that we know what they're doing and we just adjust a little based on what they're doing.)
It took National U some time to find their rhythm: they still trailed 11-16 in Set 2, and needed another timeout from Alinsunurin wherein the coach told them to focus on their defense, first and foremost.
"Sabi ko, 'yung opensa, darating 'yan eh," he said. "Basta unahin lang namin ang depensa namin either sa baba or sa taas."
(I said the offense will come. Just put defense first either up the court or down court.)
The Bulldogs would get it done in the second set, completing their comeback after veteran Madzlan Gampong injected a burst of energy from the bench. In another tight third set, it was their poise -- and FEU's lack of it -- that spelled the difference. NU got clutch hits from Natividad and Bagunas, and were gifted the final two points as the Tamaraws committed unforced errors.
NU then opened up a 7-2 lead in the fourth set, and cruised to victory.
"'Yung fourth set, medyo na-kalma na sila, lumabas na talaga 'yung ine-ensayo namin tsaka 'yung laro namin talaga buong season," said Alinsunurin.
(In the fourth set, I managed to calm them down, what we practiced was coming out, and how we really played throughout the season.)
For the NU coach, it was their championship experience that allowed them to pull through the tough loss in the opening frame and eventually claim victory.
"Siyempre laking tulong sa amin 'to, 'yung experience namin sa championship. Halos 'yun ang nagdala sa amin eh, sa adjustment talaga," he explained.
(Of course our experience in the championship was a big help. It was what pulled us through, the adjustment.)
"Everytime na may situation ang kalaban namin, nagagawan namin ng paraan na maka-ano namin, magawan naming ng paraan kung ano pwede naming gawin. Mapa-opensa, mapa-depensa," he added.
(Everytime there's a situation with our opponent, we are able to do something, whether it's in the offense or defense.)
"Basta, sa 7 years namin na laging lumalaro sa championship, 'yung naging experience talaga, sobrang lamang na lamang eh."
(With our 7 years of playing in the championship, that experience gave us an edge.)
Bagunas, who finished with 18 points in Game 1, put it simply: "Para sa akin, 'yung tempo sa laro ng Finals, andoon na kami."
(For me, the tempo of a championship game, that's where we were.)
"Talagang ia-apply na lang namin kung ano tinuturo ng mga coaching staff sa amin. And ayun, pagbutihan lang talaga and communication lang bawat puntos," he added.
(We will really apply what our coaching staff is teaching us. And just do well and [have] communication for every point.)
FEU head coach Rey Diaz acknowledged that NU's poise had been a factor.
"Lumabas talaga 'yung experience ng NU na ilang taon na rin sila nasa Finals. 'Yung team natin, first time lahat, first appearance sa championship game. Siguro, lumabas lang 'yung pagiging first-time," he admitted.
(The experience of NU, which has reached the Finals many times, is coming out. Our team is experiencing this for the first time, first appearance in a championship game. Perhaps being a first-timer is coming out.)
Diaz is taking heart in their win in the opening set, pointing out that for a while, their game plan worked. What they need to do now is to adjust and prepare ahead of Wednesday's Game 2, as they try to keep their season alive.
"Kailangan, kami rin mag-adjust," he said. "'Yun 'yung kailangan matutunan ng bawat isa na maging mabilis sa pag-catch up sa adjustment na pinapagawa."
(We also have to adjust. That's what we need so that every one will learn how to be fast and catch up with the necessary adjustments.)
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