|This photo is the story of this UAAP Final Four match up between Ateneo and NU. It's not about height per se but the size of your fighting heart.|
This appears in the Monday, March 3, 2014 edition of the Business Mirror.
Breaking down UAAP Volleyball Saturday
by rick olivares pic by brosi gonzales
Looking at the UAAP Men’s Volleyball Finals Game One
Is championship experience a huge advantage when it comes to match-ups? Sure it is. But it isn’t everything. I have previously argued about teams knocking out defending champions because they had gotten the requisite experience in big games and playoff situations and because they are hungrier for a championship.
And one other big factor is -- confidence.
Watching the upstart Ateneo Men’s Volleyball Team take on defending champions National University in Game One of the Season 76 Men’s Volleyball Finals, the Bulldogs’ looked confident and pumped up for the game. More so after Ateneo defeated them in second round play via three-set sweep. That was fresh in their memories. “Napahiya kami at gusto namin bumawi,” admitted NU star Peter Torres. “Alam din namin na bago sila sa sitwasyon na ganito kaya game plan din namin ay unahan na sila.”
In the first set, Ateneo had chances to close it out as they were the first to gain two-set points, but they couldn’t get the job done. If you look at the scores, they were all close: 29-27, 25-22, and 25-22.
The Blue Eagles had their moments with their serves and kills. Ateneo’s Ysh Marasigan’s facial that he served on NU’s Edwin Tolentino busted a lip and will probably be a game highlight.
But that was all they had – moments. They were inconsistent and their inexperience showed. When they took a lead, they were unable to hold on to it as they lapsed into a series of costly errors and poorly coordinated attacks. NU took advantage of that to post leads that gave them some cushion to weather any rallies.
It was the same story in the second and third sets. Ateneo matched NU point for point only to fall behind and try and play catch up. The problem with that is you expend a lot of energy in your rallies. The closer you get to point #25 the room for error is smaller.
NU had a lot of players contributing to the effort – Tolentino led the way with 12 points followed by the awesome Ben Inaudito’s 10. Torres and JB Paglinawan each tallied nine while Ruben Baysac added eight markers.
In contrast, Ateneo’s Marck Espejo led all scorers with 19 points but after him, Marasigan was the significant contributor with 10 points. If the Blue Eagles want to wrest this title from the powerful and balanced Bulldogs they will need more production from Neil Flores, Josh Villanueva, and Rex Intal who combined for 11 points.
The Bulldogs love to talk smack and strike a pose. According to Ateneo’s Flores, they knew that and they all agreed to just turn their back on them when they launch into their antics (the Bulldogs’ Paglinawan was subsequently given a yellow card for his excessive taunting). “It’s not our style to engage in such things,” said Flores. “We just try to focus on the game.”
In this case, they’ll have to do a better job on Wednesday. You could really see not only the championship experience of NU but also their having played in front of a huge crowd. Been there. Done that.
When Ateneo knocked off FEU in the semifinals, the Blue Eagles looked unnerved by the huge crowd at the San Juan Arena (they previously toiled in anonymity) and they fell behind two sets to none.
It was more of the same yesterday.
Now they know what the Finals is all about, they’ll probably play better in Game Two. The problem is the atmosphere at the Big Dome will even be more turbo-charged as it’s Game One of the Women’s Volleyball Finals and it’s the Awards Ceremony. This will be about character now.
Looking at the UAAP Women’s Volleyball Final Four match between Ateneo & NU
If confidence was key during the men’s game, it was the same with the women’s Final Four match. Except that this time, the girls in white and blue had massive doses of it.
This year, in a de-powered league (due to the graduation of many of the different teams’ stars), La Salle remained a dominant force. NU despite losing libero par excellence Jen Reyes and Cai Nepomuceno remained strong with the addition of Jaja Santiago. But they had a lot of ifs.
I felt the Lady Bulldogs won the V-League mainly because of guest player Rubie De Leon. She is not only is one of the best playmakers around but she provides terrific blocking in the middle and spiking power.
Losing Nepomuceno is acceptable as the other holdovers were tabbed to contribute more. But Reyes? That was huge as well. I wasn’t sure how Fatima General would hold up and I certainly wasn’t sure if Ivy Perez as their setter could turn them around.
Ateneo… not much was expected after losing its Fab Five and their longtime head coach in Roger Gorayeb. But as I said, in a de-powered league, they’d make it to the Final Four. A lot of people overlooked their experience. Plus, they had wunderkind Alyssa Valdez.
The Lady Bulldogs defeated Ateneo in their two elimination round meetings (Ateneo’s only four elims losses were to La Salle and NU). In fact, Ateneo’s last loss was to… Edjet Mabbayad’s team.
Then Ateneo went on a four-match win streak to end the elims before taking on Adamson and the Lady Bulldogs in the playoffs.
I had a feeling once in the Final Four, Ateneo would play better. I was surprised that NU didn’t play well at all. They were here last year although they lost to La Salle via three-set sweep. So they had the experience. But the Ateneo Lady Eagles were oozing with confidence. More so they had a huge crowd at hand to cheer them on (I wondered how the Lady Bulldogs handled the booing).
When they played Ateneo last year, the Lady Bulldogs did a lot of trash talking with Myla Pablo become their poster child for taunting. She was quickly gobbled up in social media and was never the same after that. They did their trash talking again but unlike their men’s counterparts who have won a title, they ultimately couldn’t back up their talk with the walk.
Much talk was made about their height advantage. While height is also might so is – there’s that word again – confidence. The sight of a 5’2” Ella De Jesus blocking a 6’5” Jaja Santiago and the 6’2” Dindin Santiago said much about this series.
After Ateneo took Game One of their Final Four series, their confidence was soaring. You could see it as they took the court to begin Game Two’s first set. The body language said it all. The pressure wasn’t on them. It was on NU. The Lady Bulldogs were tabbed to play La Salle for the title. I thought that too but here they were and on the ropes.
What was key was Jia Morado’s setting. In the second set that NU took, 25-8, Morado’s setting was slow and predictable. You could see it coming her setting up Valdez, Michelle Morente, and Ella De Jesus. The attacks were from the wings. The lack of a middle game was painfully obvious.
NU’s famed blocking came to fore and they rattled off four consecutive points off blocks. Then after a Morente spike that was called out, they accrued two more points once more off blocks.
For the second set, Ateneo’s Thai coach Anusorn Bundit instructed Morado to be quicker with her playmaking and to be a little more creative. The result was sending NU’s taller players scrambling to block the Lady Eagles’ attacks.
I’ll say this about Morado... for a freshman to finish a point behind La Salle’s Kim Fajardo for best setter… that says a lot as she outplayed Perez (31-25 excellent sets).
I felt that Jaja Santiago was not utilized properly all season long. In my opinion, Perez didn’t set too many plays for her. Sure she finished with 14 points, second to her sister Dindin but her points were scattered and mostly scored during the second set that they won.
But in the end, Ateneo’s experience and dogged determination won out. The service error by Dindin Santiago that gave Ateneo a 24-22 lead in the fourth set was huge. Then Alyssa Valdez closed it out.
It was terrible to watch Dindin Santiago’s UAAP career come to a close despite having only played three seasons (due to her transfer from UST to NU). Now it’s back to the drawing board for them.
In the meantime, it’s the third year of Ateneo and La Salle for the Finals. Will the dynasty continue to rule or will the underdog make history? It’s going to be interesting to find out.