De La Salle University bested defending champion National University in a battle of nerves, wits and countless stare downs, 18-25, 25-22, 22-25, 25-21, 15-13 to draw first blood in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines Season 85 women’s volleyball finals yesterday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Thea Gagate’s towering presence at the net and lucky breaks down the stretch quelled the late fightback of the Lady Bulldogs in the tightly-fought fifth set of the emotionally-charged encounter witnessed by a 10,995-strong crowd.
La Salle, five years removed from the throne, will try to close the series and claim its 12th title overall next Sunday at the same venue.
“We are happy we won Game 1. We really worked hard for this and the players showed that they really wanted this win,” Lady Spikers assistant coach Noel Orcullo said.
Rookie Angel Canino led the Lady Spikers, who were swept by NU in last season’s championship match, finished with 21 points off 19 attacks, and two aces with 14 excellent receptions.
Gagate scored back-to-back points to push La Salle’s fifth set lead to 12-9. NU tried one last time to get back in the game with Alyssa Solomon cutting the deficit to 13-12.
The Lady Bulldogs then lost starting middle Sheena Toring after hurting her left knee after landing on Gagate’s foot. Reigning Most Valuable Player Bella Belen tried to will NU back after saving a match point, 14-13, but Chams Maaya committed the team’s last of eight errors in the fifth set after sending her quick attack straight to the net.
Gagate got 17 points for La Salle.
Solomon scored a game-high 28 points with 24 off kills, Belen got 22 points and 12 digs while Vange Alinsug and Erin Pangilinan had 10 each for the Lady Bulldogs, who threw away 34 points off errors.
Meanwhile, University of Santo Tomas showed no signs of rust from a weeklong rest as it swept its way into its first finals appearance in 11 years at the expense of Far Eastern University, 25-18, 25-22, 25-21, in the last stage of the men’s stepladder semifinals.
The Tigers, who had time to rest and prepare for the knockout match after closing the elimination round at no. 2 spot, will challenge unbeaten three-peat-seeking National University for the crown in their first finals meeting in the Final Four era.
Game 1 of the best-of-three championship is on Wednesday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Gboy de Vega led all scorers with 16 points while top Most Valuable Player candidate rookie Josh Ybanez was in his usual dangerous self with 15 markers including the match-winning hit as both wingers combined for 28 of UST’s 49 kills.
“We’re very happy we’re able to bring UST to a final appearance,” Ybanez said. “We’re also thankful to our alumni who visited us yesterday to share their experiences on how they became champions. It’s a huge boost for us.”