University of Santo Tomas spoiled the first attempt of National University to reach the UAAP men’s basketball finals for the first time in 43 years yesterday.
After zooming to an early double-digit lead, the Growling Tigers weathered the Bulldogs’ late rally with a 71-62 decision to forge a winner-take-all match for a title slot this Saturday.
“We came in with nothing to lose; the pressure was on them,” UST coach Pido Jarencio said after his fourth-ranked Tigers shocked the Bulldogs, the top team after the eliminations, at the start of the Final Four at Smart Araneta Coliseum.
“As I said, the Final Four is a different story. No one has the advantage.”
Aside from vying for a return trip to the Finals, the Tigers will aim to become the first No. 4 team to advance to the championship round since 1994, when the league implemented the Final Four format.
The UST-NU knockout contest is set at Mall of Asia Arena with the Tigers hoping to overcome the Bulldogs’ twice-to-beat advantage.
La Salle, the No. 2 seed also holding a twice-to-beat bonus, will shoot for the first championship slot against Far Eastern University in their own semifinal duel this Wednesday at 4 p.m., also at MOA.
The Bulldogs, hoping to reach the Finals for the first time since 1970, came out looking rusty after a two-week break from their last game in the eliminations where they finished at 10-4, in a tie with the Archers and the Tamaraws. NU gained the No. 1 ranking, though, due to a higher quotient.
Adding to the Bulldogs’ woes were the early foul troubles of NU star Ray Parks in the first quarter, where the Tigers pulled away in double figures, 19-8.
“We started aggressive,” said Jarencio of the Tigers, who stretched their lead to 39-23 at halftime behind Kevin Ferrer and Aljon Mariano.
Ferrer knocked in 12 of his 14 points from three-point range, while Mariano and Clark Bautista chipped in 12 each for the Tigers.
“We were helping each other in the team, we just trusted each other,” said Ferrer.
The Tigers built an 18-point lead, 63-45, in the final period before the Bulldogs rallied behind Parks, Gelo Alolino and Emmanuel Mbe.
The Bulldogs twice moved within five in the last four minutes, but Jeric Teng and Mariano came up with key baskets to secure the victory.
The Bulldogs dropped a 13-0 bomb that cut down a 63-45 advantage to a slim 63-58, before Teng halted the huge comeback with a triple for 66-58.
Mariano also nailed four crucial free throws inside the last 90 seconds after the Bulldogs had threatened anew at 67-62.
The Bulldogs blew several late chances that could have pushed them within a basket, including Mbe’s missed dunk.
NU absorbed a double blow as No. 4 Adamson also stunned the top-ranked Lady Bulldogs, 76-71, in the women’s Final Four earlier.
La Salle claimed the first Finals berth after downing UST, 81-74, in overtime in the other semifinal duel.
UST 71—Ferrer 14, Mariano 12, Bautista 12, Teng 8, Abdul 7, Sheriff 6, Pe 6, Lo 2, Lao 2, Daquioag 2.
NU 62—Alolino 17, Parks 14, Roño 8, Mbe 8, Villamor 5, Khobuntin 5, Porter 3, Alejandro 2, Rosario 0, Javillonar 0, Javelona 0.
Quarters: 19-8, 39-23, 54-44, 71-62