By Ricky Manliguis
QUEZON CITY—Ateneo weathered the storm put up by National University to pull off a pulsating 25-22, 21-25, 22-25, 25-18, 15-13 win in Game 1 of the men’s volleyball finals of the UAAP Season LXXIX Tuesday at the Big Dome.
Down by a set, the two-time champions displayed nerves of steel and timely points to shrug off a stubborn stance by the Bulldogs to put a foot into a three-peat, while remaining undefeated for the 29th straight time stretching back to last season.
The boys from Katipunan nearly squandered a five-point lead in the fifth and deciding set, but Marck Espejo and Rex Intal pounced on both ends to give them the victory.
After taking the first set, Ateneo showed off signs of rust and went error-prone, committing 11 errors in the second and third to allow the Bulldogs to take control of the match and take a 2-1 lead.
Recovering right back in the fourth, the Eagles then went on to a 13-8 advantage, only for NU to tie it on a run backstopped by James Natividad and Fuazi Ismail.
That set the stage for Espejo to score for match point, before Intal rejected a Fauzi attack for the winning point.
"I just told them that their minds will make them champions. I told them to play by heart, and I guess 'yun ang pinakita nila." said Ateneo coach Oliver Almadro.
He also gave recognition to the gallant stand of NU, but later pointed out that it was all heart that won the game for the team.
“For the past three and four years, sa strength and power, sobrang lakas ng NU. But I guess, heart lang ang panlaban namin talaga, and 'yung willingness to win ng mga players," he added.
Espejo, set to be named as the tournament MVP, led the way with a game-best 29 points while scoring 25 of the team’s 62 attacks points. He also added three blocks and a service ace.
Anton Koyfman added 18 markers for Ateneo, while Josh Villanueva chipped in 14.
NU were led by Ismali’s 22 points on 20 hits, while Bryan Bagunas had 19. Captain Francis Saura and Kim Malabunga were the other double-digit scorers with 11 and 10, respectively.
Ateneo will gun for a sweet sweep in Game 2 on Saturday still at the Araneta Coliseum. Game 3, if necessary, will be on May 10.