MANILA, Philippines -- National University (NU) dodged a bullet in Game 1 of the UAAP Season 82 women's basketball finals, escaping with a tight 70-65 win over University of Santo Tomas (UST) on Wednesday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Playing without former MVP Jack Animam, who sustained an injury at the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament in New Zealand last week, the Lady Bulldogs were never able to pull away from the Golden Tigresses.
But they got a clutch three-pointer from Kaye Pingol with 1:32 left to peg the final score, and played tremendous defense the rest of the way to prevent the Tigresses from mounting a historic upset.
"I'm happy that everybody stepped up," said NU head coach Pat Aquino. "Kelli (Hayes) stepped up, (Mikka) Cacho stepped up, everybody did their part."
"Jack got hurt (but) hopefully she can be here next game," he added, as Animam is still in New Zealand where she is under observation after absorbing an elbow to the face during their game against South Korea last November 16.
Rhena Itesi put up 17 points and 13 rebounds, Hayes had 16 points, while Pingol finished with 12 markers. Cacho was also superb, nailing two big three-pointers in the fourth quarter to help the Lady Bulldogs stay ahead. She finished with 11 points and 6 boards.
It was not a comfortable victory for the usually dominant NU team, however. UST remained within striking distance most of the way, and they came to within two points, 67-65, with still 1:40 to go after a 6-0 run capped by a layup by two-time MVP Grace Irebu.
Off a timeout, the Lady Bulldogs worked the ball to an open Pingol, who splashed the dagger triple -- her first made three-pointer of the game.
"(I told them to) just keep on playing, don't mind the score," said Aquino. "They reacted so well."
NU has now won 95 consecutive games, and is just one victory away from securing a sixth consecutive women's basketball crown. They can seal the "six-peat" on Saturday's Game 2 at the MOA Arena.
"We have to play NU basketball for 40 minutes," Aquino stressed.
Irebu struggled from the field, making just 4 of her 19 field goal attempts. But she went 8-of-10 at the charity stripe for 17 points, along with 18 rebounds and 5 blocks. Tacky Tacatac added 10 markers, but no other UST player reached double-digits. They shot just 26.7% from the game.
NU 70 -- Itesi 17, Hayes 16, Pingol 12, Cacho 11, Canuto 4, Del Carmen 4, Surada 4, Clarin 2, Bartolo 0, Cac 0, Fabruada 0, Harada 0.
UST 65 -- Irebu 17, Tacatac 10, Ferrer 9, Soriano 8, Callangan 7, Gandalla 5, Portillo 4, Rivera 4, Panti 1, Gonzales 0, Javier 0.
Quarter scores: 21-22, 41-38, 57-53, 70-65.
For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.