Bulldogs in Final Four for first time in seven years
National University (NU) finally ended a seven-year wait to play in the UAAP Final Four of the men’s basketball championship after taking down University of Santo Tomas (UST), 67-57, Sunday afternoon at Mall of Asia Arena.
And NU coach Jeff Napa knows exactly what that means.
“What’s next? We need to train again tomorrow. We have to be ready against La Salle. We have to be ready in our last two games of the second round. Because we’re not just targeting a Final Four finish. We’ll do the same thing, the same routine,” said Napa in Filipino.
Napa wasn’t particularly happy despite the win, because his highly-touted Bulldogs trailed the toothless Tigers by as many as 11 points early before rallying to improve their record to 9-3 with a fourth straight win.
“Bad win for us, but [we] still survived this UST team, which played without pressure. They played their hearts out and gave us a problem. Good thing we were able to regroup to come back in the second half and get the win,” Napa said.
John Lloyd Clemente, who last experienced a Final Four appearance while still in high school in 2018, poured in 19 points, including a dagger corner three-pointer to cap a 12-0 run for a 64-54 lead with 1:51 remaining.
There was no saving the Tigers from slumping to their 10th loss in 11 games after that.
Defending champion University of the Philippines still has a firm hold of No. 1 spot, which is why Napa doesn’t want his charges to slow down one bit in their final two games since finishing second after the eliminations will give them a distinct advantage in the playoffs.
Clemente, who shot four-of-seven from beyond the arc, echoes his coach’s view.
“We still have a lot of lapses to improve as coach Jeff said. We won’t be complacent because the level of competition is peaking, especially in the Final Four and our last two remaining games,” he said.
Omar John had 12 points on six-of-nine shooting for NU, while Kean Baclaan had 10 points, six assists and five boards as they scored 14 points off UST’s 15 turnovers.
Eagles in close win
Earlier, Ateneo also dodged a bullet as Ange Kouame lifted them from a 19-point deficit before edging out Far Eastern University (FEU), 71-65, to move to the cusp of the Final Four—and stay in the top two fight—with an 8-3 record with its third straight victory.
Kouame willed the Blue Eagles back with 20 points, 14 rebounds, three assists and a block to erase the Tamaraws’ 39-20 lead early in the second quarter. He scored 10 in a blistering 13-0 run to end the third that cut down the Far Eastern lead to 54-49.
Ateneo extended it to a 20-1 run to lead for the first time, 56-55, after Paul Garcia’s triple with 8:34 remaining. Xyrus Torres restored the order for FEU with back-to-back treys to regain the advantage, 61-56, before Kouame capped an 8-0 Eagles run for a 64-61, going into the final 2:28.
Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin praised FEU coach Olsen Racela after pushing them to their limits.
“I don’t have to tell anybody how tough it was. You all saw that. As usual, Olsen does a great job preparing his team,” Baldwin said. “It seems like he does a great job preparing for us. We always seem to escape FEU. That’s probably really tough for the FEU coaching staff and players because they always seem so well-prepared for us, and it always feels like an escape act when we win against them.”
Guard Forthsky Padrigao was also instrumental with 13 points, six assists, five rebounds and a steal. BJ Andrade chipped in nine points and Dave Ildefonso finished with eight points and nine boards.
“To be perfectly honest, that win was just heart and some decent execution in the fourth quarter. But up until then, we were pretty bad, really, in most aspects of the game. The second half of the third quarter, our defense finally dug in and shut them down.
“But it looked like they were the much-better prepared team, and they were also fighting extremely hard,” Baldwin said in tribute to the Tamaraws. INQ