MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED)—The Ateneo Lady Eagles showed that their hearts remain as strong as ever as they soared to the pinnacle of the UAAP Season 81 women's volleyball tournament on Saturday.
In front of a massive crowd at Mall of Asia Arena, the Lady Eagles defeated University of Santo Tomas in an emotional deciding game of the finals, putting a fitting end to what has been an unpredictable tournament.
Ateneo won 25-17, 25-22, 25-22, sweeping the Golden Tigresses to claim its first UAAP women's title since Season 77, and extending UST's championship drought for yet another year.
"It's not how you start, it's how you finish," said Ateneo coach Oliver Almadro, who led the Lady Eagles back to the summit in his first year in charge of the women's team. "We lost the first match of the season, and many people counted us out."
"But we made it," he stressed. "It's because of our faith, and it's because of our courage."
The win completed a stunning comeback for the Lady Eagles, who floundered in Game 1 of the best-of-3 series last week and were completely outclassed by the Sisi Rondina-led Tigresses in straight sets.
But they regained their form in Game 2 Wednesday, doing enough to limit Rondina’s efficiency while UST also saw rookie ace Eya Laure suffer an injury.
With the championship on the line, Ateneo showed that its famed "heart strong" spirit lives on as they outlasted the Golden Tigresses to annex their third women's crown.
This is Ateneo’s first title since the Lady Eagles completed a perfect campaign in Season 77, going 16-0 with Alyssa Valdez leading the way for them.
Kat Tolentino scored 15 points, Maddie Madayag added 10, while Bea de Leon and Jules Samonte had 6 points each for Ateneo, which leaned on its exceptional net defense and pounced on UST's errors to claim the win in an hour and 45 minutes.
"I can finally say I'm done here," said de Leon, who earned finals MVP honors as she leaves Ateneo a champion. "Nothing compares to this feeling right now."
The Lady Eagles raced to a comfortable triumph in the opening set, which saw UST commit 13 errors. But the Tigresses bared their teeth in the second set, with Rondina finding her rhythm after being shackled in the opener. They led 16-12 after Janine Balcorta scored an ace off Ponggay Gaston.
But off the technical timeout, Ateneo reeled off 5 straight points — 2 of which came off UST's errors. They took the lead, 17-16, after Laure sent a ball off the tape of the net for her 8th attack error of the game. UST regained control, 20-18, thanks to back-to-back hits by Laure and Rondina, and then an ace by Laure. Once more, however, the Lady Eagles responded. A quick hit by de Leon stopped the bleeding, and Tolentino added a kill off the UST blockers. Deanna Wong served back-to-back aces, before Gaston punctuated the run by rejecting Dimdim Pacres at the net for a 23-20 count.
Hits by Rondina and Balcorta kept UST alive, but off a timeout, the Lady Eagles ran a play for de Leon who responded by burying a quick hit. In the final rally of the second set, Rondina was called for a net violation, gifting the point to Ateneo.
Brimming with confidence, the Lady Eagles surged to a 16-9 lead in the third set, and were still in control, 20-17, after Gaston fooled the UST defense with an offspeed hit.
But Laure, who battled bravely through a sprained ankle all game long, scored back-to-back hits to make it a one-point game, 20-19, and force Almadro to sue for time. Upon restart, de Leon ended a long rally with a massive block of Laure at the net.
Laure was quick to recover, firing a down-the-line hit to trim the deficit to one point, before Rondina knotted the count at 21. A kill by Tolentino made it 22-21, before Rondina uncorked another crosscourt hit to tie the game for the last time.
It was Madayag who came up clutch for the Lady Eagles, scoring off a soft tip, then remaining alert at the net for a crucial kill that put her team at championship point, 24-22. UST tried to stave off the Ateneo celebration with a timeout, but the Lady Eagles would not be denied. Samonte brushed off a hit against the UST blockers to clinch the title for Ateneo.
Ateneo had fewer kills, 37-27, but its net defense was superb as they put up 14 kill blocks. The Lady Eagles also got 29 free points off UST's errors.
In her final UAAP game, UST captain Rondina scored 18 points, while Laure, the rookie of the year, added 10. No other player reached double-digits for the Tigresses.
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