Bring out the brooms. The league-leading, undefeated National University Lady Bulldogs swept aside cellar-dwellers University of the Philippines Lady Maroons, 64-44, to put themselves one win away from sweeping the eliminations round. If the masterful Bulldogs overcome their final hurdle in vengeful No. 2 seed DLSU, they will earn an automatic slot in the Finals, along with a daunting thrice-to-beat advantage. NU’s MVP candidate Afril Bernardino was unstoppable on both ends for the Lady Bulldogs, as she posted a game-high 27 points, on an eye-popping 13/16 mark, along with 9 boards, and 6 steals, in only 23 minutes of play. UP’s star gunner Bea Daez scored 15 points for the winless Maroons, but was the only player in her squad to hit double-digits. NU’s season-long excellence gives them a spotless 13-0 record, while UP only has one more chance, against fellow stragglers UE, to attach a win to their 0-13 slate.
UP started the game strong, bullying the surprised Bulldogs on the boards – possibly the only weakness of the slightly undersized NU squad. Maroons starting forward Tin Aliermo hauled in 9 caroms, 5 on the offensive end, in the quarter alone. UP’s 20-5 edge in rebounding, along with Isabela Aurellado’s 9 points, powered the underdogs to an early 17-8 advantage. Compounding the Lady Bulldogs’ woes were the 2 quick fouls on Afril Bernardino, which consigned the superstar forward to the bench for more than half of the first period. The Lady Maroons’ ascendancy was short-lived though, as the Bulldogs roared back in the most dominant of fashions. Bernardino returned to the hardwood with a vengeance, eating up the court with her peerless athleticism and defensive instincts. She stripped the ball from the Maroons 3 times in the period alone, and forced a handful more turnovers, as momentum shifted irrevocably to the Bulldogs. Bernardino’s exemplary ball-hawking also allowed her to abuse UP in transition, and she poured in 12 points on 5/6 shooting in that game-breaking second quarter. UP’s early lead was a distant memory by the end of the half, as NU held onto a comfortable 15-point cushion, 34-21. The halftime break was the only respite the Lady Maroons would receive. The merciless Bulldogs continued their march to perfection in the third, and with only 10 minutes to play in the match, NU was up an insurmountable 53-27, almost doubling UP’s total production. In the end, despite a little UP struggling at the end, the 64-44 final tally was inevitable.
Bernardino’s monstrous production actually allowed NU to shrug off poor performances from the other usually reliable members of their rotation. The Lady Bulldogs’ ordinarily excellent tandem of Shelley Gupilan and Krisrine Abriam misfired the whole game, and, more damningly, failed to compete on the boards with UP’s unfancied frontcourt. The pair combined for only 14 points, on 29% shooting, and 7 rebounds. In fact, outside of Bernardino’s 81% clip, the entire NU team struggled, as only reserve Ria Nabalan (2/5), shot better than 30% from the field. NU’s tenacious D allowed the team to overcome their pedestrian shooting from the field. Bernardino, Abriam, Gupilan, and backup guard Janeth Sison each registered at least 3 steals in a dominant 20-steal outing for the Lady Bulldogs. Despite the loss, the Maroons will take Tin Aliermo’s performance as a positive. UP’s unheralded forward bested her more highly regarded opponents in terms of rebounding, as she led all players with a mighty 19 rebounds, 8 off the offensive glass. Reserve Antonia Wong was also effective in spite of limited playing time, notching 6 points and an impressive 9 rebounds in only 21 minutes. Bea Daez customarily led UP in scoring, but again laboured against the focused defensive attention of the opposing squad. Her 15 points came on 18 shots, and, with Bernardino draped over her all game long, she turned the ball over 8 times.