It was the best challenge an opposing team had put up against the Lady Spikers all season.
The NU Lady Bulldogs had rattled off ten straight games, brimmed with confidence, and looked poised to deal them an upset and derail their plans of earning an outright Finals berth and a thrice-to-beat advantage.
That was until Abi Maraño rallied her teammates, at which point Ara Galang, Mika Reyes and the rest of the squad responded and propped up the team’s vaunted blocking, which had been lying dormant for most of the match.
After dropping the first set in the match, the Lady Spikers took control of the second set and withstood several challenges from the Lady Bulldogs in the third before putting them away, 14-25, 26-24, 25-21, 25-20, to sweep the elimination round of the UAAP Season 76 Women’s Volleyball tournament.
With the win, the Lady Spikers earned an automatic seat in the Finals and a thrice-to-beat edge, needing to win only twice to win their fourth straight volleyball crown. The three other teams in contention in the Final Four, meanwhile, will have to slug it out in a stepladder semifinals, with the fourth-seeded team (either FEU or Adamson) facing the third-season team (Ateneo). Whoever wins will face the second-season team (NU), before squaring off with the Lady Spikers. La Salle likewise managed to sweep the 14-game eliminations in Season 74 on their way to the title, when the team was led by the likes of Cha Cruz, Michelle Gumabao, and Maraño.
Galang finished with a game-high fifteen points, including four blocks, while Maraño, who graduated a week ago, netted 14 points and six excellent digs, spearheading a comeback for La Salle after an anemic start that saw them yield only their second set to an opponent all season. Reyes chipped 11 points including four blocks, while Cyd Demcillo and Kim Fajardo finished with seven apiece.
The victory, however, was anything but a cakewalk for the Lady Spikers, and was reminiscent of their thrilling comeback wins last season against the Ateneo Lady Eagles.
After pummelling the Lady Bulldogs during their first meeting last December 11, NU looked to write a different ending after breaking from a tight first set. Jaja Santiago scored four straight points and Myla Pablo unleashed a down the line hit as they entered the second technical timeout with a 16-12 lead. Galang scored on a kill after the timeout, but La Salle was outscored 9-1 the rest of the way, with Dindin Santiago scoring on a running hit as the Lady Bulldogs pocketed the first set, 25-14.
Rebounding from one of their worst sets of the year, the Lady Spikers stormed to the lead in the second, and seemed to be cruising as they led 18-10 midway through the set. The Lady Bulldogs, however, mounted a comeback, ultimately tying the match at 24 after a score by Dindin Santiago, before La Salle scored the next two points to win the set.
Unfazed by having their comeback foiled, NU began the third set by wrestling the lead, which was at its largest at 12-3, forcing DLSU head coach Ramil De Jesus to call for time. And after the ceasefire, La Salle showed that it can climb from a huge deficit as well, tying the score after a block by Galang on Aika Urdas. Another block by Maraño gave the Lady Spikers a 20-18 lead, but a drop hit by the younger Santiago tied the set once more at 21.
But that proved to be the last deadlock in the set as La Salle zoomed ahead after scoring four unanswered points, the last on a service ace by Denice Tan, who had a game-high three for the game along with Kim Fajardo. After the first two sets, the Lady Spikers only had a single block, but by the end of the third set, that number was up to eight as the team’s defense ratcheted up and made life difficult for the Lady Bulldogs to score their points.
By the fourth set, the Lady Spikers immediately grabbed the lead, with Reyes and Maraño scoring the bulk of their points early on. They led by as much as seven points, 15-8, but the Lady Bulldogs threatened and trimmed their lead to two, 21-19, after a down the line hit by Rizza Mandapat. Reyes, however, restored a three point lead for La Salle, and after two miscues by the Bulldogs, Fajardo handed a perfectly timed set for Galang for the kill and the exclamation point on the statement win for the Lady Spikers.
Jaja Santiago led the charge for the Lady Bulldogs, finishing with 14 points, while the graduating Dindin Santiago wound up with 13. Mina Aganon ended up with 10 points while Aiko Urdas added nine for NU, which saw their own ten-game winning run snapped against the team that handed them their only losses.