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NU earns breakthrough win over Ateneo, claims No. 1 seed

National U’s Bryan Bagunas (1) elevates over the Ateneo defense. Arvin Lim, ABS-CBN Sports

MANILA – For the first time since UAAP Season 76, National University has beaten the Ateneo de Manila University in men’s volleyball – and it could not have come at a better time for the Bulldogs.

The Bulldogs overpowered the Blue Eagles, 25-23, 21-25, 25-23, 25-19, in their final elimination round game on Sunday at the Mall of Asia Arena to secure the No. 1 seed in the Final 4, and clinch a twice-to-beat edge in the semis to boot.

It was a breakthrough victory for the Bulldogs, who have lost 13 straight matches to the Blue Eagles since Season 76. But they would not be denied this time around, as their superb net defense stifled even reigning four-time Most Valuable Player Marck Espejo, while their bevy of attackers fired kill after kill against the slower Ateneo floor defense.

“Sabi ko nga, sa wakas,” said NU coach Dante Alinsunurin, whose last win against Ateneo came when he was still coaching the likes of Peter Torres and Vince Mangulabnan.

“Ang tagal naming pinag-aaralan, ang tagal naming pinaghandaan ang laro na ito. Sabi ko, ito na ‘yung time talaga na may chance kaming Manalo sa kanila,” he added. “Kasi sa ikutan sa first six, medyo lamang kami sa opensa at depensa.”

Bryan Bagunas led National U with 19 points, but he received plenty of help from Madzlan Gampong, who had 13 points, and James Natividad, who scored eight.

But the crucial plays came courtesy of their middle blockers, Kim Malabunga and Francis Saura, who combined for eight of National U’s 10 kill blocks.

Ill-timed errors by Ateneo led to their defeat in the opening set, with setter Ish Polvorosa committing a service error, and Marck Espejo firing an attack wide after they had rallied to tie the frame at 23. The defending champions recovered in the second set, but again fell apart in crunch time of Set 3.

The Blue Eagles were actually in control of the fourth frame, leading 11-8 after a net violation was called on the Bulldogs.

Turning the tide in NU’s favor was Malabunga, who came up with back-to-back kill blocks on Espejo that highlighted an 8-1 run. Ateneo did not help its cause as Karl Baysa committed two straight attack errors that pushed the Bulldogs ahead, 16-12.

The Blue Eagles were never able to recover, with Bagunas and Gampong putting the finishing touches on the victory late.

“Napaka-importante nito sa mga player ko,” said Alinsunurin. “Ang laking tulong sa amin na nakuha namin ‘yung No. 1. Sana magtuloy-tuloy na.”

With the result, Far Eastern University finished as the No. 2 seed, and will have a twice-to-beat advantage against the Blue Eagles in the Final 4.

NU, for its part, will wait for the winner of the playoff between Adamson University and University of Santo Tomas.

Espejo had 23 points but was inefficient by his standards, converting only 21 of 51 kills. Ron Medalla had 14 points, and Chumason Njigha had 11 markers.

This is the first time that Ateneo will head into the Final 4 without a twice-to-beat advantage in the Marck Espejo era.

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