Third-year Team Captain Bea Bernardo swept her matches to power the defending champions University of the Philippines Lady Maroons past last year’s opponent Ateneo de Manila University Lady Blue Shuttlers, 3–2, to clinch their second straight Finals appearance, Sunday at the Rizal Memorial Badminton Hall.
Going into the battle, Bernardo and her team was wary of their neighbors from Katipunan, despite the latter losing key players from graduation and injury. For her part, the UP skipper had trouble against the taller Cassie Lim before pulling off the pivotal win in the first singles match in three games. The designated opener for Ateneo romped off to a hot start in the first game using her length and smart play to outwit Bernardo. Lim rolled to a strong 8–1 opening, fending off Bernardo, and closed off the first game, 21–12. In the following game, the Lady Maroon changed the pace of the game and used her own smart tactics to force her opponent to errors en route to leading 11–8 at the break. UP went to within two of levelling the match, but Ateneo took back-to-back points to force a stalemate. Bernardo then finished the game and took it, 21–19. In the deciding game, Lim had a dream start scoring eight unanswered points, before Bernardo made her case. The third-year UP veteran romped a 5–0 run to wrestle the lead. The Atenean then forced a tie at 17, but Bernardo closed it with a 4–0 run and took the match, 21–17.
In a battle of unbeaten women, Bianca Carlos continued her dominating run in the tournament after dismantling Ann Marañon. Carlos got to a wild start with an 11–3 lead going into the break. The diminutive Marañon tried to keep the opening frame close, but the former MVP’s power was too overwhelming for the second-year standout. Shots after shots poured on for Ateneo to take the first game, 21–14. In the second game, the two adversaries tried to keep the game close. However, last year’s top rookie, Marañon, started to feel severe muscle pain and decided to retire with the score at 7–3, in favor of Carlos. With that, the tie was level at one match apiece.
UP then brought out their best doubles team to date in reigning Most Valuable Player Jessie Francisco and rookie Lea Inlayo, to get ahead in the tie again. However, it was the Ateneo tandem of rookie Geva De Vera and Janel Dihiansan who pulled through a thrilling three-game match to stun the erstwhile undefeated duo. De Vera, with ample support from Dihiansan punished the tentative actions of the Lady Maroons in the first game to take the frame, 21–14. The Ateneans led by as much as 9, 19 –10, and never looked back. In the following game, the UP tandem changed their plans and went on to the offensive. With several aggressive plays throughout the game, Inlayo and Francisco pulled through a tight opening to dismantle their opponents, 21–8. Knowing that this is a crucial match-up, the two pairs fought hard in the deciding game. De Vera and Dihiansan resumed their excellent play at the start of the final frame and waylaid their counterparts until the court change. Using their experience and chemistry, Inlayo and Francisco slowly crept into the deficit and got to within one, 16–17. Ateneo regained a cushion and moved to within two of getting the tie lead, 19–16. However, the Lady Blue Shuttlers failed to close it out at that point, and the Lady Maroons took charge of the game themselves and took the match point after a 4–0 run. Getting their confidence back, Dihiansan and De Vera then finished the match with three consecutive points, 21–19, to take the victory to the delight of the Ateneo faithful in attendance.
It was now up to the captain duo of Bernardo and Elisha Ongcuangco to salvage the undefeated record and the outright finals stint for the Lady Maroons. It was no easy task, however, as they faced Lim and Carlos in the second doubles match. However, the UP veterans pulled through in two straight tight games. In the first game, Ongcuangco and Bernardo started well to outwit the Ateneo duo and led 11–8 at the break. Carlos and Lim kept it close and put the pedal to the gas with a 6–0 run to lead 18–12. That cushion was not comfortable as several miscues from Ateneo and well-placed shots from UP powered the Bernardo and Ongcuangco to an even more impressive nine-point binge to end the first game, 21–18. That wild finish in the first game fuelled the Maroons veterans to mount a huge 14–7 lead. Nevertheless, similar to the opening frame, a big lead is not enough if you’re going against a quality side on the other end of the court. Lim and Carlos slowly crept into the lead and threatened their opponents to within 3, 15–18. In the end, the UP skippers pulled off against their equally experienced counterparts and levelled the tie, 21–18.
With the tie at two matches apiece, Inlayo and Dihiansan took the court again to settle their own score in the day’s most important match. Fuelled by her own disappointment, Inlayo overpowered Dihiansan in the first game. The two players fought hard at the start of the match before Inlayo took the lead at the break, 11–6. The Atenean cut the deficit to 4, 8–12, after the break, but that would be her last hurrah. Inlayo registered her own 9–0 romp to take the first game, 21–8. Dihiansan got her bearings in the following game and forced the otherwise solid Inlayo into errors to snatch the lead at the interval. The lone Lady Maroons rookie tried to keep step with the Atenean, but the latter went to two points away from forcing a deciding game. Inlayo regained the firepower in her play and punished Dihiansan to mount a huge 7–0 blitz to gain the match point. An error in the following play levelled the game for Dihiansan, before Inlayo put on the finishing touches in the next two rallies, 22–20, to take the game, the match, and the Finals ticket for the Lady Maroons.
With the victory, the Lady Maroons sweep the qualifying round ties and gained their second straight Finals appearance with the thrice-to-beat advantage. Meanwhile, the Lady Eagles finished at 3rd after the eliminations and will face Far Eastern University on October 7, Wednesday, 1pm at the same venue.
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