Lady Spikers succumb to Lady Eagles in UAAP finals opener

Cyd Demecillo received a perfectly timed set from Kim Fajardo, and she directed the ball past the extended arms of two blockers towards the end of the Ateneo side, where she found a hole in the Lady Eagles’ defense. But the ball also edged past the service line and was declared outside, awarding the Lady Eagles a point. In the next sequence, Amy Ahomiro found another crack in the La Salle defense for the match’s penultimate point, before a kill by Alyssa Valdez clinched the upset win.

A game that began flawlessly for the La Salle instead ended with a barrage of Ateneo points, with their thrice-to-beat advantage going up in smoke and the Finals now becoming a best-of-three affair.

After dominating the first set, the DLSU Lady Spikers faltered and yielded the next three to the Ateneo Lady Eagles, 25-17, 25-23, 25-13, 25-20, in Game 1 of the UAAP Season 76 Women’s Volleyball Finals earlier today at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.

The win by the Lady Eagles now trims the thrice-to-beat advantage of the Lady Spikers. Now, Ateneo has to win only twice to win their first championship, while La Salle will also need two victories to win their fourth straight volleyball crown. The Lady Spikers, meanwhile, also saw their astounding 30-game winning streak dating back to December 2012 snapped, with the Lady Eagles winning their eighth straight game.

After a blistering start that saw the La Salle spikers lead by as much as eleven, 14-3, after Abi Maraño blocked Ateneo’s Ella De Jesus from the other end and then turned her defense into offense by scoring on a kill in the next La Salle offensive, Ateneo recovered and made things interesting towards the end of the set, closing to within 24-17, before Demecillo scored on a hit that punctuated the set for the Lady Spikers.

Coming off an 18-day lay-off, with their last match being held last February 15 against NU,  La Salle showed no signs of rust at the start of the match and at the beginning of the second, even going into the first technical timeout bearing an 8-4 edge after a block by Demecillo on Lady Eagle Michelle Morente.

The Lady Eagles, however, came out of the huddle by scoring four quick points, the last on a kill by De Jesus, to take a 9-8 lead. La Salle still led, 11-9, after a drop hit by Kim Fajardo, but a couple of service aces by Ahomiro and a spike by Morente shoved Ateneo ahead, 14-12. La Salle was able to tie the score several times, the last at 22-all, another service ace by Ahomiro and La Salle’s 11th unforced error of the set allowed Ateneo to tie after pocketing the set, 25-23.

Whatever momentum Ateneo had during the second set carried over in the third, as they zoomed to a 7-5 lead early. La Salle knotted the count at seven, but Ateneo countered by scoring six straight points to go up 13-7. The Lady Spikers trimmed it to four, but another torrid run by their rivals gave the Lady Eagles a stunning 21-10 lead, and they were on their way to snatching the lead in the match.

It was the first time all season that the Lady Spikers had lost back-to-back sets, and they initially bore a 5-3 lead. That, however, was soon overturned as the Lady Eagles led by as much as eight in the set, 19-11, after a service ace by setter Julia Morado. That was when Demecillo and Ara Galang spearheaded a late charge by La Salle as they scored four quick points to trim Ateneo’s lead, coming closest as 21-19, before Demecillo’s aforementioned spike sailed wide and a point was awarded to the Lady Eagles, leading to Ahomiro’s hit and Valdez’s match-clinching kill at the end.

Demecillo was the picture of consistency for the Lady Spikers leading them with 16 points, including three blocks. Galang added 13 hits for La Salle, while team captain Maraño chipped in with 10. For the Lady Eagles, it was Morente who torched the La Salle defense with 17 points, while Ahomiro added 16 hits, a bulk of which came from service aces. Valdez, who only averaged 10.5 points in two games against La Salle in the elimination round, went off for 16, although she had a lot of help this time.

The rust that was initially thought to be a non-factor after the Lady Spikers’ frenetic start in the first set eventually reared its head, as La Salle committed an uncharacteristic 26 errors in the match after only having three in the first set. The league’s best-blocking team likewise yielded 49 spikes to the Lady Eagles, and had only 29 excellent digs to Ateneo’s 50.

Now, with their historic winning run snapped, the Lady Spikers might also lose some of the pressure that they have been playing with for most of the season. The last time the Lady Spikers swept the elimination round and carried a thrice-to-beat edge in the finals was in Season 74. That team had a 10-day break before Game 1 of the Finals, and would lose the opener, before recovering to win the next two games. This team had an even longer rest, and likewise lost the first game.

The Lady Spikers, now facing a challenge unlike any this season, are aiming for this year’s finals to follow the same script.

The Next Game:  After their first loss, the Lady Spikers will try to get back against the Lady Eagles this Saturday, March 8, 4pm, at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.