Lady Spikers’ comeback falls short against Lady Eagles in heart-stopping Game 3 finish

For the game’s first two sets, Alyssa Valdez kept scoring through a dizzying array of attacks, Amy Ahomiro and Michelle Morente backstopped their team captain’s effort, and Ateneo Coach Asunorn “Tai” Bundit kept dancing on the sidelines.  The Lady Eagles seemed poised to send the series to a winner-take-all Game 4 by sweeping the defending champion Lady Spikers, which has not happened since they first won their first title in 2010.

That’s when Ara Galang decided she wasn’t going to allow her team to be swept on her watch.

Galang, last year’s co-MVP with Abi Maraño, turned in her finest performance as a Lady Spiker, scoring 28 points, including five blocks, a service ace, 15 digs and seven excellent receptions. This time, she got help from teammates Cyd Demecillo, Mika Reyes, and Abi Maraño as La Salle convincingly took the next two sets, setting up the stage for a fifth set, the first time in these finals.

Both teams battled tooth and nail in the final set, getting at least a match point each, the last coming in at 16-15 for the Lady Eagles. The next point, however, would be the game’s last, and it came not through a thunderous spike or an emphatic block, but through a contested call by a referee which doused the La Salle rally.

After a lethargic start, the DLSU Lady Spikers engineered their best comeback this season, forcing a deciding fifth set, before ultimately falling to the Ateneo Lady Eagles, 21-25, 23-25, 25-18, 25-16, 15-17 in Game 3 of the UAAP Season 76 Women’s Volleyball Finals earlier today at the Mall of Asia Arena.

The official call made by the referee was an illegal attack by Kim Fajardo after she sent the ball to Valdez even when she was from the back row, anti-climactically ending an otherwise pulsating match that went the full distance, and La Salle’s first five-setter since last year’s Game 1 of the Finals, when they completed a 0-2 set comeback to stun the Lady Eagles on their way to their third title.

The loss by the Lady Spikers sets up a do-or-die Game 4 for the Finals this Saturday, March 15, also at the MOA Arena.

Aside from Galang’s 28 markers, Demecillo added 12, while Reyes wound up with 11 and Maraño finished with eight. Fajardo had 35 excellent sets, while libero Cienne Cruz had 13 excellent receptions.

Bolstered by their Game 2 win, the Lady Spikers burst out of the gates with the lead early in the first set. A down the line hit by Valdez that went outside awarded La Salle another point, and they entered the second technical timeout of the set ahead, 16-12. Valdez, Morente, and Ahomiro, however, took turns in scoring for the Lady Eagles, and a hit by Morente between two blockers gave Ateneo a slim 21-20 lead. Morente followed that score with a service error to allow La Salle to tie, but an attack by Valdez and several blocks by Ahomiro allowed Ateneo to pull away and bag the first set.

The Lady Spikers zoomed to an early lead again the second set, leading 10-7 at one point, before the Lady Eagles strung together five points to take a two-point lead. From there, neither team led by more than two points, with La Salle snatching back the advantage 19-17, before a score by Ahomiro and a service ace by Morente gave Ateneo a 23-20 edge. La Salle closed to within 23-24, after a four touches violation was called on the Lady Eagles, but Ahomiro again punctuated the set with a kill.

With their backs, against the wall, La Salle scored the third set’s first two points, but the Lady Eagles seized control after that, racing to a 10-6 lead after a spike by Valdez. The Lady Spikers, however, scored four straight to knot the count at 10, forcing a ceasefire from Ateneo coach Bundit. After Ateneo took a brief 12-10 lead, it was then that Galang caught fire, scoring almost at will for the Lady Spikers as they turned the one-point disadvantage to a sizeable 18-12 lead after a staggering eight unanswered points by La Salle. Ateneo was able to close to within 23-16, Demecillo and Reyes scored on the next plays to put the set away.

Finally having a sense of urgency, La Salle’s defense finally made its presence felt, as the team scored three blocks and exploited Ateneo’s nine errors in the set to lead by as much as nine, 19-10. That lead was chopped to five, 21-16, after a violation on the Lady Spikers, and Coach Ramil De Jesus sued for time to steady his players. That time-out proved to be beneficial as La Salle scored the set’s last four points, the last after Fajardo blocked Valdez, to force the fifth set.

Both teams traded points early in the fifth as the excitement among the 18,000 strong crowd at the venue reached fever pitch. A hit by Galang between two Ateneo blockers handed La Salle an 8-6 lead heading into the first timeout. Another kill by Galang that found a crack in the Lady Eagles’ defense increased La Salle’s lead to four, 12-8, but Ateneo scored two quick points out of a time-out to stay within striking distance.

The Lady Spikers still carried a 13-11 edge, before Ateneo scored three more points to take a 14-13 lead and put them at match point, actually the first of several match points. Galang scored on a vicious kill once more as La Salle tied it as 14, and the Lady Spikers had their own match point after Lady Eagle Marge Tejada’s attack was rejected.

Valdez, however, received a nifty set from Jia Morado to tie the score at 15, before Morente scored on another hit for Ateneo to take another match-point, which would ultimately be the game’s last. After the serve, La Salle prepared for its counter-attack, but the referee waved off the play and signalled a violation, awarding a point to Ateneo and ending the match.

For Ateneo, Valdez registered her highest output against the Lady Spikers this season, finishing with 22 points, while Ahomiro and Morente both ended up with 15 apiece, with Ella De Jesus chipping in nine. Setter Jia Morado had 48 excellent sets, while libero Denden Lazaro had 24 digs and 15 excellent receptions.

The Do-or-Die Game: The Lady Spikers will once again aim for their fourth straight title, and the ninth of Coach Ramil De Jesus, this Saturday, March 15, 4pm at the Mall of Asia Arena. The game will also be broadcast on ABS-CBN Channel 2 at 3:30 pm.