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Nationals claim Spikers’ Turf crown

National University-Sta. Elena crowned itself the new Spikers’ Turf Open Conference kings by ending Cignal HD’s reign in a gripping fashion, essaying a 25-18, 23-25, 25-23, 25-23 victory before a packed crowd at the Paco Arena Saturday night.

Buds Buddin blasted in a power hit that bounced off the out-stretched arms of two Cignal defenders and outside the court, capping the Nationals fightback from 12-15 down in the fourth and their rise to the men’s volley throne dominated by the HD Spikers with a sweep of the Reinforced and Open conferences in 2019 before play was halted due to pandemic.

But the young Nationals proved they’re ripe for the picking, stamping their class in the elims and then sweeping the Final Four and the HD Spikers in the finals to claim the crown after finishing third the last time out.

But this new batch, made up of certified stars, led by Conference MVP Nico Almendras, Buddin, Ken Malinis and Best Setter winner Ave Retamar, showed it can measure up with the best of the best, besting Marck Espejo and the rest of the seasoned HD Spikers in the opener, 25-21, 20-25, 25-23, 25-18, and then repeating the feat in two hours and two minutes of top-notch hitting and blocking to complete their remarkable title run.

The HD Spikers looked headed to forcing a decider and a Game 3 as they fended off a series of the Nationals’ fightbacks in the fourth, the last at 22-20 on an Espejo crisp backrow attack.

But Malinis came through with a clean hit and Buddin scored on a tip off a broken play to tie the count and the Nationals sustained their momentum by winning three of the last four points, highlighted by Buddin’s decisive hit.

Buddin wound up with 22 points and deservedly clinched the Finals MVP honors, overshadowing Almendras’ 18-point output while Malinis backed them up with a solid 10-point showing. Retamar added seven points on top of 20 excellent sets and Oben Mukada finished with six points, including four kill blocks for the Nationals’ whose title romp should install them the team to beat in the coming UAAP wars.

Ysay Marasigan, whose late net violation put Sta. Elena at championship point, topscored for Cignal with 17 points while Espejo and Louie Ramirez fired 16 points apiece and JP Bugaoan added 12 points and Peter Torres chipped in eight points, including three quick running attacks in the stretch, the last forcing the last deadlock at 23.

Sta. Elena and Cignal split the first two sets in come-from-behind fashions with the Nationals battling back from four points down midway in the opening frame to win by a margin and the HD Spikers rallying from 15-19 down in the second then holding sway in the stretch to squeak out a two-point victory.

But the Nationals pulled through in a wild third set which they dominated majority of the way until the HD Spikers battled back from seven points down, 14-21, to threaten at 23-24 on an Almendras’ backrow attack that sailed long, ending a long tense-filled rally in a duel of spurts.

But Buddin scored on an off-the-block hit, moving the Nationals a set away from winning it all.

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