For the first time since 2011, the University of Santo Tomas Golden Tigresses earned a seat in the UAAP Finals, outclassing the three-time defending champions De La Salle University Lady Spikers, 25-19, 25-19, 20-25, 23-25, 15-10, at the SM Mall of Asia Arena.
Since Season 73, the last time they made the Finals, UST had been to the Final Four only four times. On the other hand, La Salle missed the Finals for the first time since Season 70.
From down 4-7, UST out-hustled La Salle for the rest of the first set. They eventually grabbed a 22-16 lead and gained an early advantage.
The second frame played out the same way, with the Lady Spikers starting strong, 7-4, only for UST to come roaring back. A stream of La Salle errors carried UST to a 20-15 lead. The Tigresses’ ensuing 1-2 substitution backfired, with La Salle coming within two, 20-18. Reinstating Alina Bicar and Ysa Jimenez, UST regained control and took five of the next six points to close the frame.
The Tigresses seemed to have the win in hand after a flurry of attacks gave them a 15-11 advantage. Following a timeout, La Salle tweaked their lineup, slotting in Julia Ipac for Lourdes Clemente. The third-year middle blocker injected much-needed energy and led a 7-0 La Salle run. UST got as close as two, 18-16, but never recovered to regain the lead.
UST then cobbled together an 11-8 lead with Sisi Rondina fueling their fourth set attack. When the graduating captain rotated to the back row, however, La Salle sprung to action and grabbed a 15-12 advantage. Rondina then picked up her act once she stepped in the front row again, scoring twice in a 4-0 run.
La Salle’s middle blockers took control in the next rallies, as Aduke Ogunsanya’s serving and Ipac’s blocking resulted in a 21-18 advantage. May Luna and Des Cheng conspired and pulled off back-to-back kills for a 23-19 lead. UST’s Cait Viray responded tallying points from an attack and an ace to inch UST closer, 24-21. Eya Laure then went on a solo 2-0 run, before a net touch from teammate KC Galdones allowed La Salle to extend the match to a fifth set.
Both teams swung for the fences to begin the decider. UST gained an 8-5 start thanks to big plays from Rondina and Laure. Viray then swung from the right pin, before Ipac threw away an attack, extending UST’s lead to five, 10-5. Luna essayed a 3-0 run, serving an ace that kept La Salle within two, 10-8. Another ace from Ipac put La Salle within one, 11-10, but a big play from Alina Bicar followed by a Lady Spiker attack error pushed the Tigresses ahead 13-10. Laure then pounded in back-to-back kills to end the match.
Laure finished with 25 points off 21 attacks, two blocks, and two aces. Rondina added 17 markers.
In his four years as UST head coach, Kungfu Reyes has toiled through slim recruitment years and player injuries. For him, giving Rondina and the rest of the players of the Finals was the most important thing.
“Bago man lang umalis si Sisi at si Rica (Rivera), nakatikim sila ng Finals. Pati na rin doon sa mga bagong player para hindi naman puro sakit ‘yung naranasan nila.
“Para talaga ‘to sa UST at sa buong community na sumuporta sa amin nang walang sawa kahit hindi kami nananalo,” added the youth national team mentor.
Rookie Jolina Dela Cruz led La Salle with 12 points. In her final game as a Lady Spiker, captain Des Cheng managed 10 points. Lourdes Clemente, who played her first and final year for La Salle, managed seven points.
The Tigresses take on the winner of the Ateneo-FEU tiff in the best-of-three Finals, which begins on Saturday.
UST (3) – Laure 25, Rondina 17, Galdones 11, Viray 10, Jimenez 6, Bicar 5, Pacres 1, Galanza 0, Rivera (L)
DLSU (2) – Dela Cruz 12, Cheng 10, Ogunsanya 10, Clemente 7, Ipac 7, Luna 6, Tiamzon 4, Alba 1, Cobb 0, Saga (L)