Bonfire! UP Maroons end 2 decades of Final 4 absence
Two decades of an agonizing wait—including stretches where a single win in the season was cause for celebration—came to an emphatic, emotional end Wednesday evening.
Light your bonfire, University of the Philippines.
It means something more this time.
The Fighting Maroons routed the La Salle Green Archers, 97-81, at Mall of Asia Arena to clinch a berth in the UAAP Season 81 semifinals.
This will be the first Final Four appearance for UP since 1997—about two years before Juan Gomez de Liaño was born.
The sweet-shooting guard, coming off the bench anew in a second-round adjustment meant to address production from the reserves, poured in 27 points to lead UP to this historic victory.
Older brother Javi, born the year after the Maroons’ last semifinal appearance, added 19 points. Bright Akhuetie provided the muscle for the Maroons in the paint, notching 16 points and 20 rebounds.
“I painted to them the picture of us not having any accolades in the past decades, so for us to get this chance, the opportunity, it just happened,” said UP head coach Bo Perasol.
“The players were able to grasp the idea that this was their chance for history.”
And after a slight wobble to start the match, the Maroons went out to seize that history.
After trailing 16-11 late in the first, the Fighting Maroons went on a blistering 33-5 run across the first two quarters and took a 34-21 lead on Jun Manzo’s jumper with 6:24 left.
It was a rout from thereon as the Gomez de Liaño siblings and Akhuetie took turns punishing La Salle’s defense.
The Fighting Maroons ended the elimination round tied with La Salle at 8-6 (win-loss) but grabbed the No. 3 spot on quotient.
Far Eastern University, at 7-6, can force a playoff for the No. 4 spot if it wins against Adamson in its last game.
It was an emotional scene at the UP bench as the clock counted to zero—and it was understandable. UP has had a string of bad seasons, including winless years where a mere victory was enough to draw bonfire celebrations at the Diliman campus.
Earlier, Ateneo showed no mercy despite playing in a nonbearing game as it ripped University of Santo Tomas apart, 102-62.
The Blue Eagles already locked up a twice-to-beat advantage going into the game against the eliminated Growling Tigers but the defending champions knew momentum was still of utmost importance for them going to the semifinals.
A 16-0 start was enough for the defending champions, who own a league-best 12-2 record, to hold off the Growling Tigers.
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