KELLI Hayes showed the way for National University in a tough 70-65 Game One victory over University of Santo Tomas in the UAAP Season 82 women's basketball finals on Wednesday at Mall of Asia Arena.
The Fil-Am forward delivered 16 points, four rebounds, two steals, an assist and a block to guide the Lady Bulldogs to their 95th straight victory and a win away from the unprecedented six-peat.
"I'm just happy. What can I say? I'm sad that Jack was not here with us, but happy that everyone stepped up," said coach Pat Aquino.
Hayes more than made up for the absence of Mythical Team member Jack Animam, who missed the game due to a right orbital fracture sustained during Gilas Women's game against Korea in the 2019 Fiba Women's Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tournament last Saturday.
The win didn't come easy.
UST gave NU all it could handle, keeping the game close and only trailed two points, 67-65, after Grace Irebu's inside bucket with 1:40 left.
Kaye Pingol, though, came to the Lady Bulldogs' rescue, drilling the big left corner triple to make it a five-point game, before Hayes blocked Jeorge Panti's drive with 37 seconds left to seal the deal and deny the Golden Tigresses of their upset bid.
"I know they were going to come back," said Aquino. "I just told the girls to keep on playing and don't mind the score and they were able to do so. It's just the game. I know that UST is going to come back, they've been great this season, but we always have to play NU basketball all 40 minutes."
Rhena Itesi paced NU with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and two blocks, Pingol added 12 points, six boards, five assists and four steals, and Mikka Cacho had 11 points and six rebounds.
The Lady Bulldogs can complete another perfect season with a victory in Game Two, set on Saturday still at the same venue.
Irebu, the Season MVP, led UST with a monster statline of 17 points, 18 rebounds, and five blocks, while Tacky Tacatac had 10 points, two boards, and two steals in the defeat.
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.
Quarterscores: 21-22; 41-38; 57-53; 70-65.