ATENEO's Lady Eagles continued their dream run in the UAAP women's volleyball playoffs, cutting the Santiago sisters and the rest of the National University Lady Bulldogs down to size with a four-set victory on Saturday to reach the finals opposite nemesis De La Salle.
A spike by star attacker Alyssa Valdez that eluded two NU blockers clinched the thrilling 25-22, 8-25, 25-19, 25-22 victory for the Lady Eagles, who have now won three sudden-death games in a row in the playoffs to book a third straight trip to the finale.
But to win an elusive championship, the Lady Eagles, who have now won seven successive games going back to the eliminations since the return of Thai coach Anusorn 'Tai' Bundit, will have to win three times against a La Salle side that has yet to drop a game all season.
"Everybody played good today. [My players] worked hard in training against tough competition [in NU]," said Anusorn, who had to leave the team to attend to his duties with the Thai national training team at a crucial stretch in the eliminations.
"Their hearts are strong, we played happily in a team concept," he added.
The three-time champions Lady Spikers own a thrice-to-beat edge in the final, thanks to a sweep of the two-round eliminations.
However, reaching the final is a surprise feat in itself for the Lady Eagles, who were not expected to contend for a championship this season following the departure of coach Roger Gorayeb as well as several key pieces in their 'Fab Four' nucleus from last year's runner-up team.
Valdez, the sole remnant from that popular nucleus, had a game-high 22 points for the Lady Eagles who had to beat the Adamson Lady Falcons in sudden-death in the stepladder Final Four before ending the hopes of a twice-to-beat NU side.
The last of those Valdez points put an end to a thrilling match before a crowd of more than 10,000 fans at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, leaving Dindin Santiago and other senior NU players in tears as their bid for a breakthrough championship came to a stunning end.
Santiago, who led the NU with 19 points in the match that lasted an hour and 45 minutes, tried to rally the Lady Bulldogs back into the game in the fourth set, her kill and two service winners bringing them within 22-23.
But to the NU crowd's horror, Santiago's next serve was so strong it almost landed in the front row seats, putting the Lady Eagles at match point before Valdez delivered the game winner.
Diminutive Ella de Jesus backed up Valdez with 12 points while Jaja Santiago had 14 poins for NU.