It feels like it’s been ages but the last time the University of Santo Tomas Golden Tigresses defeated the De La Salle University Lady Spikers post-elimination round face-off was in the UAAP Season 72. Behind the towering Dindin Santiago, sweet-setting Rhea Dimaculangan, and MVP Aiza Maizo, UST toppled a veteran-laiden La Salle squad with legends Paneng Mercado and Cha Cruz.
Since then, however, UST’s magic fluttered as Ramil De Jesus’ volleyball machine kept churning out titles and stars. After appearing in the Season 74 Final Four as the fourth seed, the Tigresses floundered and recuperated only recently, making the Season 79 Final Four. While UST celebrated, DLSU systematically trekked to the Final Four for the 17th time in De Jesus’ 19 seasons of coaching the squad.
The Lady Spikers make greatness routine. It is, of course, their dedication and unwavering trust to the La Sallian way that has kept them on top for nearly two decades.
To Kungfu Reyes’ admission, the Tigresses are ahead of schedule. Coming in last Season 78, Reyes envisioned a three to four year route back to a UAAP title.
Having already reached their goal, are the Tigresses ready to make another jump? Or will the Lady Spikers rise again like the cream of the UAAP crop that they are?
We take a look at the match-up.
Offense is key
Both squads boast their own defensive aces. The Tigresses finished the elimination round on top of the digging category. Ej Laure and Cherry Rondina steadily hold the backline with liberos Rica Rivera and Pat Rasmo. The Tigresses turn their digs into powerful attacks from the wings. While the Tigresses have not transitioned well into middle attacks, their wingers in Laure, Rondina, Dimdim Pacres, and Caitlyn Viray have all provided clutch points in the long rallies where UST thrives. The Tigreses shot up the spiking ranks, finishing second.
Therein lies the problem: La Salle has read the UST offense well in both of their elimination round matches. The Lady Spikers, the league’s best blocking team, have stifled UST, winning in straight sets twice. Much of La Salle’s success came from their composure in tight situations: when UST tried to comeback, the Lady Spikers shut the door with a flurry of their own.
Aside from ranking first on blocking, La Salle also tops the receiving list and places fifth in digging. Dawn Macandili, La Salle’s decorated, spunky libero, deservedly gets most of the credit for La Salle’s tremendous work on the floor. But open hitters Tin Tiamzon and Des Cheng have had their share of solid outings in the backline.
All this mention of defense is important. In volleyball, action zips constantly: from the first touch to the set to the attack. La Salle approached this flow with military precision. UST, safe to say, have seemed like a work in progress.
For UST’s floor defense game to work, they need their blocking to be on-point and siphon attacks towards their best defenders. While UST might have stronger left-side attackers, La Salle has the edge on every other skill that adds up to a good offense.
Perhaps La Salle’s biggest advantage is their mental stability and all the confidence they should already have entering Saturday’s match-up. Not only did La Salle pickup both elimination round games, they also hold a twice-to-beat advantage. Beating La Salle once is tough enough; beating them twice in a season has been impossible for every team not named Ateneo de Manila University Lady Eagles.
But UST does have an out. In both Season 77 and 78, the Lady Spikers needed the twice-to-beat incentive: the Lady Bulldogs, led by Myla Pablo, took home the first game in 77 while FEU mustered an epic comeback in 78 to force a do-or-die tiff. La Salle still had their core of veterans in both those seasons but, still, they opened both Final Four campaigns uncharacteristically laking effort.
The Season 79 Lady Spikers are much younger and have not always played with the “killer instinct” that a championship team flaunts against teams they should have beaten (see Round 1 vs UP, both Ateneo matches).
Laure and Rondina have been the consistent backbone of the Tigresses, unaffected by who is playing on the other side of the court. It’s everyone else around them that needs to step up. Ria Meneses cannot have another one-point, zero-blocks outing against La Salle like she did in Round Two. While Kungfu Reyes insists his confidence on the UST bench, the Tigresses can’t afford to shuffle around their lineup due to “off-days” from their veterans. There is no more room for off-days.
Plain and simple, Kim Fajardo is the best player in this series. No setter from the UST side has shown they can match her savvy and playmaking. With Fajardo in the mix, La Salle’s attack will always be dynamic and deadly.
If UST hopes to minimize Fajardo’s effectiveness, they’ll have to figure out how to effectively serve against La Salle. Ateneo has adapted their own targets against La Salle which UST can adapt.