MANILA — Coach Tai Bundit prepared another surprise for the UAAP Season 79 spectators as he injected libero Deanna Wong in the starting lineup of the Ateneo Lady Eagles on Sunday.
In their game against fourth seed FEU Lady Tamaraws in the tournament’s Final Four competition, the thousands of people in attendance at the Mall of Asia Arena were shocked when the coliseum announcer made a correction in the starting six of the Lady Eagles just right before the game started. It marked Wong’s first start in her young UAAP career.
When asked about how she felt prior to the match, the Ateneo sophomore admitted she was nervous. “It’s my first time to start and to play in the semi-finals.”
True enough, Wong’s lone played game in her rookie year happened on February 24, 2016 against the UE Lady Warriors during the elimination round of Season 78.
Amidst high expectations from the converted libero, she only focused on what she could to help her team win against the feisty Lady Tamaraws.
“Anything I could do to contribute to the team — that’s just what I was thinking,” she said. “Coach Tai has been giving me confidence naman.”
Ateneo’s main libero Gizelle Tan also motivated her ahead of the challenge. “Sabi niya, ‘Laro lang, be happy lang, and just play your game.’”
Wong started the game strong, with notably impressive receptions and digs all throughout the first two sets. Yet on the third set, things started to get shaky for the Lady Eagles as FEU was determined to extend their life in the tournament. Ateneo dropped the set against their opponents.
The pressure and tension inside the arena thickened in the fourth set. As for Wong, the real acid test as Ateneo’s main libero for that game begun.
With the Lady Eagles holding a slim lead at 20-18, FEU captain Remy Palma went to the service deck. The graduating Lady Tamaraw was desperate to extend her collegiate career, and she did everything in her power to do so — including launching a bomb of a serve towards Wong’s direction to score on an ace that gave FEU the lead at 20-21.
Ateneo called a timeout to stop the momentum.
In the huddle, the seniors of Wong noticeably gave their attention to the young libero to boost her confidence.
On live TV broadcast, it was heard how ace spiker Jhoana Maraguinot insisted, “Isang receive, (tapos) patay tayo. Isang receive lang.” Team captain Jia Morado’s voice then echoed among her teammates, “Nothing to lose, nothing to lose. Twice-to-beat tayo, nothing to lose.” And just on their way back to the court, senior and co-captain Mich Morente was seen giving a pep talk to Wong before the play resumed.
“There’s nothing to lose. I think what she meant was kahit anong gagawin, walang mawawala. Just play your game lang,” Wong said of her captain’s reassuring statement.
The Cebu native wrapped up her performance with a double-double of 20 excellent digs and 11 excellent receptions, but she knew there were still certain things she could improve on.
On her personal assessment of her game, she shared, “Kulang lang sa pag push ng bola kay ate Jia. Kaya parang I kept on saying sorry to her kasi napapagod din siya sa paghahabol sa receive ko.”
But overall, things went well for her. “I think I expected worse. I expected a lot of misreceives.” The seal of approval came when Tan hugged her at center court as their teammates joyfully celebrated the win.
The Ateneo Lady Eagles now enter the Finals to set up a duel for the crown against collegiate rival and defending champions DLSU Lady Spikers for the sixth consecutive year.
“Our goal as a team is really to win the championship,” said Wong. “I think it’s for ate Gi (Gizelle Tan) naman din kasi graduating na siya, and for our seniors.”
“Personally for me, if ever, and hopefully we will be champions, it will be my first time in Ateneo and as a starter,” she added.
But for the impeding battle of the rivals, Wong reiterated that they are not focused on how they swept the Lady Spikers in the elimination round.
“Play our game pa rin, tapos be humble pa rin,” she quipped.