Blue Eagles survive gritty Bulldogs, move closer to 3-peat
Ateneo de Manila moved a win closer to completing a historic season sweep and a three-peat.
Three-peat seeking Ateneo de Manila shook off the cobwebs of their long layoff to complete a come-from-behind, 25-22, 21-25, 22-25, 25-18, 15-13, win Tuesday against archrival National University in Game 1 of their 79th UAAP men’s volleyball best-of-three Finals series at the Big Dome.
Three-time Most Valuable Player Marck Espejo just as always provided the heroics for the Blue Eagles, breaking a 13-13 deadlock with a thunderous spike to NU’s open backrow that ended the Bulldogs scorching rally from an 8-13 deficit in the fifth set.
Graduating player Rex Intal sealed the hard fought win with a kill block on Fauzi Ismail.
"Great game. I always tell them that NU is a great team, but the minds of the players will make us the champions," said Ateneo coach Oliver Almadro. "The resilency and heart they are showing, I can't say anything less for my players."
The fourth year hitter Espejo smashed 25 attacks, had three kill blocks and an ace to finish with 29 points while Russian-American Antony Koyfman added 18 markers coming of 14 spikes, two kill blocks and a pair of aces for Ateneo. Senior hitter Josh Villanueva registered 14 points while Intal got 11 for the Blue Eagles, who walked away with the win despite giving away 35 ponts off errors.
Down, 1-2, in their first match since completing a sweep of the 14-game elimination last April 8 that propelled the Blue Eagles back straight in the championship round, the Blue Eagles showed the true heart of the champion to escape with the win – Ateneo’s 29th overall win since last season. It is the Katipunan-based squad’s ninth straight head-to-head victory against NU since Season 77.
After a rusty start in the opening frame that saw Ateneo trail, 5-14, the Blue Eagles unleashed an impressive fightback to take the lead, 22-21, capped by Koyfman’s back-to-back attack before completing the come-from-behind set win.
NU regrouped in the next two sets but Ateneo jumped on the Bulldogs in the fourth set and built a six-point lead, 20-14, to control the frame and send the match to a deciding frame.
Ismail scored 22 points with 20 coming off kills while Bryan Bagunas and Francis Saura finished with 19 and 11 markers, respectively, for NU. Kim Malabunga had 10 points.
Game 2 of the Finals is on May 6 while Game 3, if necessary, is on May 10.
Follow this writer on Twitter, @fromtheriles