National U star Din Din Santiago finally showed up and Smart-Maynilad outhit Army in the decider of their sudden death to carve out a 21-25, 25-20, 25-13, 21-25, 15-10 victory last night and arrange a showdown with Cagayan Province for the Shakey’s V-League Season 10 Open Conference crown at The Arena in San Juan City.
Santiago, who had been in the Smart-Maynilad roster since the start but only got the go-signal from NU yesterday, blasted 19 kills as she teamed up with Alyssa Valdez and Thai Lithawat Kesinee in delivering the goods on both sides to carry the Net Spikers to victory.
“We were surprised she was given permisssion to play because as of last night (Saturday), there was no word yet if she’d play,” said Smart coach Roger Gorayeb in Filipino referring to Santiago.
But though the troika combined for 65 hits, the Net Spikers still had to go through a decider to overcome the tough-defending Army Women and seal a dream duel with the unbeaten Rising Suns for the championship in the season-ending conference of the league sponsored by Shakey’s.
Game One of the best-of-three finals starts tomorrow at 4 p.m. after the 2 p.m. battle for third, also a best-of-three, between Army and Air Force. The awards rites for the conference’s top performers will be held after the Army-Air Force duel.
The 6-foot-1 Santiago, who steered the Lady Bulldogs to their first Shakey’s V-League crown in the First Conference last May where she also bagged the MVP, highlighted her rather late debut with three blocks while altering Army’s offensive thrusts with her intimidating presence on the net.
Valdez played true to form and pummeled Army’s court with 23 kills for a 24-point output while Kesinee backed her with 22 as the third seeded Net Spikers frustrated the No. 2 Army Women in another thriller of a five-setter, their third in four face-offs this conference.
Smart-Maynilad regrouped after dropping the opening set and swept the next two but reeled back in the face of Army’s strong fightback in the fourth that forced the decider.
But the Net Spikers broke away from a tight game at 9-8, racking up four of the next five points for a 13-9 cushion before players sandwiched an Army point for the victory.
Jovelyn Gonzaga and Rachel Anne Daquis paced Army with 17 and 12 hits, respectively, but failed to draw solid support from the rest with Dahlia Cruz, who fired eight points in the last two sets to help Army clinch the Game Two win, failing to score in the second and third sets.
Heading to the do-or-die game, Santiago said on her Twitter account, @dindinquicker16: “Sa lahat po ng umaasa na lalaro po ako for “SMART” wag na po kayo umasa di po talaga ako makakalaro. Di po ako talaga ako pinayagan. (For those hoping I’ll play for Smart, don’t hope anymore because I will not get to play any more because I wasn’t given permission.”