ILOCOS NORTE – Chery Tiggo crowned itself the country’s first pro volley champion, shocking Creamline with a gem of a fightback, 23-25, 20-25, 25-21, 25-23, 15-8, and snatching the hotly-disputed Premier Volleyball League Open Conference crown in sudden death at the PCV Socio Civic and Cultural Center in Bacarra here, Friday evening.
Dindin Manabat saved her best for last, exploding for career-best 32 points, almost single-handedly carrying the Crossovers in the third set. Then she combined with sister Jaja Santiago and the rest in the last two frames as they turned what had appeared to be an improbable quest to a resounding victory.
“I just want to thank the Lord for giving me strength,” said Manabat, tears flowing after emerging from a big Chery Tiggo celebration at center court.
Sustaining the momentum of their sizzling comeback from 0-2 set down, the Crossovers took six of the first seven points in the decider aided by four Creamline miscues. They unflinchingly held on to the lead to beat the very team that has never lost a five-setter but absorbed the one that hurt the most.
With their offense anchored on the Santiago sisters finally humming after sputtering in the first two sets, the Crossovers likewise toughened up on defense with Santiago foiling a number of Creamline attacks and the rest keeping the team in command with spectacular digs and solid floor defense.
The Cool Smashers, who had survived five grueling five-set duels, including in their Game One win, 25-15, 25-21, 18-25, 19-25, 15-7, cracked under pressure this time and fell into a maze of mishits and miscues, enabling the Crossovers to complete their stirring come-from-behind win.
The Crossovers, who took Game Two, 25-18, 17-25, 25-16, 25-21, last Thursday to force the winner-take-all match, also showed character, resiliency and fought back on pure guts to achieve a cherished dream.
The United Asia Automotive Group, Inc. franchise thus gained the distinction as the first team to win the pro volley diadem in an exacting five-week tournament held in bubble setup due to pandemic and strict health and safety protocols.
“I want to congratulate Creamline, which has the experience in this kind of level (of play). But thank God, He guided us and we showed what we are made of,” said Chery Tiggo coach Aaron Velez. “We just trusted ourselves, we trusted one another.”
As Alyssa Valdez tried to will the Cool Smashers back one last time at 6-11, Maika Ortiz stepped up to deliver a hit and after a rare Chery Tiggo net violation, Jasmine Nabor scored in a joust, Tots Carlos fired the last of her mishits and Nabor served long before Santiago buried the Cool Smashers on her bread-and-butter play – quick attack.
Santiago, who finished with 26 points, later captured the Conference and Finals MVP. The 6-foot-5 blocker also led the league in spikes with 122 on a 49.8 percent success rate, topped the field with 18 aces while ending up third in blocks with 23.
In the finals, Santiago normed 25.3 points.
Valdez wound up second in the MVP derby, averaging a league-best 18 points, and joined Santiago in the All-Premier team that includes middle blocker Ria Meneses of Petro Gazz, opposite hitter Kat Tolentino of Choco Mucho, outside spiker Myla Pablo, also of Petro Gazz, setter Jia Morado of Creamline and libero Kath Arado of Petro Gazz.
It was a sorry setback for the Cool Smashers, who had appeared headed to re-stamping their class in this tournament they ruled in the then semi-pro PVL in 2019 when they swept the first two sets. Though they slowed down in the third, they came out strong in the fourth but just couldn’t stop the Santiago and Manabat juggernaut and the entire Crossovers all the way to the fifth.
The loss also put to naught Morado’s conference-high 47 excellent sets
Down 0-2 in sets, Chery Tiggo went to Manabat, who banged in hits after hits from both sides and at the back row and from all angles, her sharp kill that hit Valdez’s shoulder and saw her apologize, made it 23-15.
Despite the stumble, the Cool Smashers picked themselves up and controlled the early going of the fourth set but Manabat and Santiago refused to give up and kept pounding Creamline’s defense with power shots and crosscourt hits from Manabat and quick hits from Santiago.
Carlos pumped in the bulk of her topscoring 22 points in the first four sets but failed to find her mark when it mattered most, converting in just a couple of occasions while hitting four wayward attacks.
Valdez ended up with 17 points while Risa Sato and Jema Galanza each fired 14 hits and Pangs Panaga chipped in eight points.
“For the longest time, either we’re on the same team or on the opposite sides, I’m really happy to see the growth and the God-given talent of Jaja,” said Valdez.
Santiago, meanwhile, relished the rare chance of putting one over the former Ateneo hotshot, saying: “I remember every time we would face ate Ly (Valdez), we would always lose to Ateneo even in twice-to-beat situations.
“But this is a new journey for me and I am so happy to have finally shown the talent given to us by God,” said Santiago, who spiked her performance with four blocks on top of 22 attacks.