NATIONAL University made UAAP history on Wednesday when it ousted powerhouse University of Santo Tomas in a four-set thriller, 25-19, 21-25, 25-16, 25-23, to book a first-ever Final Four berth in the women’s volleyball tournament.
Cai Nepomuceno, playing in her final season with the team, came through with 23 points to lead the Lady Bulldogs to the semifinals for the very first time since the Final Four was instituted by the league in 1994.
“Parang hindi ko alam ano yung nararamdaman ko,” said Nepomuceno, overwhelmed by her emotion just moments after the dramatic win in their do-or-die encounter at The Arena in San Juan.
“Di ko alam yung feeling kasi first time namin sa Final Four, speechless lang talaga ako.”
The Lady Bulldogs, UAAP volleyball champions in 1953 and 1956, now faces the daunting task of battling reigning two-time titlist De La Salle in the semis, where the top-ranked Lady Archers enjoy a twice-to-beat advantage.
The Final Four will be held this Saturday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
But the match-up with La Salle could wait at the moment as NU savors the thrill of winning over a team long considered as a dominant force in women’s volleyball.
The loss ended Santo Tomas’ 18-year Final Four streak and denied the Tigresses another shot at regaining the title they last won in 2009 yet.
Former UST high school star player Dindin Santiago denied her alma matter of a Final Four seat as she finished with 21 markers, from an all-around performance of 15 attacks, five blocks, and one service ace.
“Masaya sobra,” said the NU skipper. “Hindi ko ma-explain yung saya.
“Ang sa akin kasi NU na ako. Love ko din sila (UST), pero mas kailangan ko i-prove sa kanila (NU) na worth it ang paglipat ko, na hindi ako liability sa kanila,” added Santiago, who embraced Santo Tomas’ Rhea Dimaculangan after the game, the Lady Tigress being the one closest to her among the UST players.
Both teams each claiming a set for an even 1-1 count, the Lady Bulldogs finally took control later in the third, before sustaining the intensity in the tightly-fought fourth set which Nepomuceno capped with back-to-back hits to seal the momentous win.
Judy Anne Caballejo finished with 15 points in her final game for UST. Carmela Tunay added 12 markers, while Maika Ortiz, also in her final year with the team, had seven points.
“Syempre sobrang sayang,” sighed Ortiz. “Kilala ang UST na laging nakakapasok sa Final Four.
“Sabi ni coach (Francis Vicente) di pa dyan natatapos ang lahat,” added Ortiz as tears started to well in her eyes.
Vicente, himself a former UST volleyball player, felt sorry for his alma mater, but was obviously elated with what his young team had just achieved.
"Siyempre masaya kasi natupad na ang pangarap ko (Final Four)," he said.
"Trabaho lang. UST pa din naman ang pinanggalingan ko, walang personalan."