La Salle needed just three sets on Thursday night to prove that it is the best team for the one job that no other squad has done so far: Beat the rampaging National University Lady Bulldogs.
With its blockers shutting down kills and blunting attacks, the Lady Spikers bucked a late third-set rally by the Ateneo Blue Eagles to seal a 25-19, 25-20, 25-23 semifinal victory that booked the school a ticket to the finals of the UAAP Season 84 women’s volleyball tournament.
“We were prepared to counter everything that Ateneo will give us,” said La Salle assistant coach Benson Bocboc. “From attack, to service to defense. And so far [everything we planned] materialized.”
For Ateneo, it was the end of a reign that began in 2019 and prolonged by the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down the tournament in the next two years that followed. The Blue Eagles had their hand in extending their rule, too, winning three do-or-die matches before facing their fierce rivals, who lay in wait with a twice-to-beat card in their pockets.
“Preparing for this game, we knew that Ateneo was coming from [winning] crucial games … [so] we prepared two times, maybe three times, as hard,” said Bocboc.
But it wasn’t just the length of time that La Salle had to prepare for the game that doomed Ateneo.
It was the Lady Spikers’ length, which bedeviled the Blue Eagles on both sides of the net at Mall of Asia Arena.
Defense to points
La Salle came up with huge blocks, including four in the first set, that took the sting out of Ateneo’s kills. And when those blocks were not resulting in points, they were blunting attacks that bought an already excellent floor coverage a lot of time to set up its defense.
The Lady Spikers translated their defense into big points, most notably in one sequence in the third set, where La Salle dug up two Ateneo kills that looked like sure points before setting up Jolina dela Cruz for a point that gave them a 20-14 lead.
Faith Nisperos tried to resuscitate the flatlining Blue Eagles with four straight points and Erika Raagas came alive in the stretch to push Ateneo to within 23-22. Raagas also saved one La Salle matchpoint before Leiah Malaluan delivered the game-clinching point.
“We are very happy to win this one, we offer this to our seniors and our coaching staff,” said Malaluan. “This is the product of the one week of hard work we gave preparing for this game.”
Malaluan finished with 16 points, while Dela Cruz and Thea Gagate, who had several big kill-blocks, added 13 points each for the Lady Spikers, who will face the Lady Bulldogs in a best-of-three tussle for the title starting on Saturday.
La Salle rallied from a 7-10 deficit to take the lead at 12-11 on back-to-back aces by Dela Cruz. There was no looking back in the set once Malaluan found her mark and Gagate closed down the air space for the Blue Eagles.
The momentum spilled over to the second set as every Lady Spiker played their roles well. Backup setter Julia Coronel, fielded just in time for her serve, struck with an ace to push La Salle to set point there, before Fifi Sharma shut down Nisperos with a block that ended the second set.
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