MANILA, Philippines – The National University Bulldogs are aiming to make the finals of the UAAP for the first time since 1970 when they take on the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers in the Final Four Sunday at the Araneta Coliseum.
The Bulldogs, the UAAP's cellar-dwellers for years, clinched the top spot and the twice-to-beat advantage after finishing with a 10-4 record in the UAAP Season 76 men’s basketball tournament.
They actually had the same record as the Far Eastern University Tamaraws and the De La Salle Green Archers, but grabbed the No. 1 spot by virtue of a superior quotient.
The Bulldogs, led by two-time UAAP Most Valuable Player Bobby Ray Parks, now have a strong chance of advancing to the Finals for the first time since 1970, when they lost to the University of the East.
"We have a great shot of going to the Finals, so we just want to stay humble and hungry to make sure that we stay focused," said NU coach Eric Altamirano after they clinched a twice-to-beat edge 11 days ago.
NU won both elimination round games against UST, 71-67 in the first round and 75-61 in the second round. In both games, UST skipper Jeric Teng played limited minutes due to injury.
But UST head coach Pido Jarencio stressed that the Final Four is entirely different from the elimination round.
The Growling Tigers notched a semi-finals berth for the third consecutive season after toppling defending champions Ateneo last week, ending the Blue Eagles' five-year domination of the UAAP.
"Kahit papaano, may chance tayo na maka-balik sa Finals. Alam kong medyo mahirap, number one team ang kakalabanin natin, pero pagdating naman ng Final Four, ibang usapan na 'yan," said Jarencio.
"Pare-parehas na tayo d'yan. It's all about the heart, tsaka 'yung desire – kung sino 'yung mas gustong manalo," he added.
Teng, who was bumped by NU forward Jeoffrey Javillonar in their round one encounter then injured his hamstring in their second round encounter, is determined to extend his collegiate career.
"I know that day will come that I'm gonna play my last game with UST, but that day is NOT TODAY, Lord," Teng tweeted early Sunday morning. "Just not yet."
It will be the second consecutive season that the Bulldogs and the Tigers will meet in the Final Four. In Season 75, the second-seeded Tigers needed only one game to boot out the Bulldogs, who were then making their first semi-final appearance in 11 years.