FEU's Gryann Mendoza harasses La Salle's Jeric Teng during their teams' semifinal match in the UAAP men's basketball competition. -- Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNNews.com
MANILA, Philippines – (UPDATE 3) After a five-year absence, the De La Salle Green Archers are back in the UAAP Finals.
La Salle rallied from an 11-point deficit to turn back the Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws, 71-68, in their Season 76 Final Four showdown at Mall of Asia Arena on Wednesday to advance to the UAAP Finals for the first time since Season 71.
Jeron Teng, LA Revilla and Norbert Torres all scored 15 points apiece for the Green Archers, who have now won their ninth consecutive game after finishing the first round of eliminations with a 3-4 win-loss record.
"I have to hand it to the players. They played their hearts out in the last four, five minutes of the fourth quarter, and that's why we were able to pull this one out," said La Salle head coach Juno Sauler, who have led the Green Archers to the Finals after famously taking over the team just two weeks before the season started.
Both La Salle and FEU finished the elimination round with 10-4 win-loss records, but the Green Archers claimed a twice-to-beat edge after winning their playoff game last Saturday.
In the third period, it seemed as though the Tamaraws would be able to force a winner-take-all game, as they took an 11-point lead twice, 46-35 and 49-38. Terrence Romeo, the Season 76 Most Valuable Player, was instrumental in the run, as he assisted on baskets by veterans Carl Cruz and Gryann Mendoza.
But Revilla, who scored 20 points in their previous game, gave the Archers a boost in the third period. He sparked a 6-0 La Salle run that made it a five-point game, 49-45.
"It was just the opportunities that they gave me, the looks that they gave me," said Revilla, who also had eight rebounds. "I have to give credit to my teammates for sharing the ball."
After FEU took a 56-47 lead on another Mendoza triple, it was Teng who steered a 5-0 run that allowed La Salle to enter the final frame down by just four, 52-56.
To make matters worse for the Tamaraws, Mendoza fouled out with 12 seconds to go in the third quarter after being called for a personal foul and a technical foul in succession.
FEU stretched their lead to seven, 59-52, early in the final frame with graduating guard RR Garcia providing key baskets. Sauler chose that moment to call a timeout to remind the Green Archers of their game plan.
"There was one stretch when they were up, and I called a timeout, and I just told the players to focus on what our offensive and defensive game plan was, and they stuck to it," said Sauler.
Out of a timeout, the Green Archers scored seven consecutive points, and it would be a nip-and-tuck game from that point on as the two squads exchanged leads twice.
A triple from Roger Pogoy gave FEU the lead for the last time, 66-65 with 3:51 remaining. Teng responded by scoring four consecutive points -- including two free throws -- as La Salle took the lead for good.
After a Revilla free throw that made it 70-66, Romeo scored on a lay-up to make it a two-point game. Jason Perkins then split his charities, leaving the door slightly open for FEU, but Romeo's triple at the buzzer hit nothing but air, triggering a celebration in the green side of the MOA Arena.
Yet even as they advanced to the Finals for the first time since Season 71 -- where they were swept by archrivals Ateneo -- Sauler stressed that the Green Archers must remain level-headed and maintain their focus.
"This is what we talked about, even at the start of the season, to just improve every game, improve daily in practice," he said. "Wherever it brings us, then we'll be satisfied with what we do as long as we keep on improving."
La Salle will face either the top-seeded National University Bulldogs or the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers in the Finals. They will contest the other Finals berth on Saturday at the MOA Arena.
Romeo finished with 14 points and seven assists for FEU, but struggled with his shooting again as he missed all six triples and made only five of his 12 attempts from inside the arc.
Garcia, in his final game for the Tamaraws, finished with 10 points.
"Sa akin, okay naman eh," said Garcia, who was the UAAP MVP in Season 73 but was unable to lead FEU to the championship."Basta sa last season ko, binigay namin 'yung best namin. Lumaban kami."
FEU coach Nash Racela was proud of his team's performance, but noted that the technical foul called against Mendoza at the end of the third was a "game-changer."
"I think they (La Salle) was struggling against our defense almost the whole game. Maybe we had a number of lapses, but all in all, we were happy with how we performed today," he said.
"(Mendoza's technical foul) could be the turning point. The referees could have not given the technical. They could have not called the unsportsmanlike foul (against Tolomia in the fourth quarter), but they did," he added. "It's really a game-changer. That's what I told the referee."
FEU got a scoring boost from veteran forward Carl Bryan Cruz in the first half, as he scored 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting from the field. His lay-up at the buzzer at the end of the first quarter allowed the Tams to take a 21-18 advantage.
La Salle tried to establish their bigs inside the post early in the opening frame, but their efforts were stymied by the physcial defense of the FEU big men.
A triple from Kib Montalbo tied the game at 23-all early in the second period, but Cruz drilled his second three-pointer of the game just moments later to immediately give the lead back to the Tamaraws.
FEU would go on to lead by as much as eight points, 35-27, on a fastbreak lay-up from Romeo. La Salle's offense sputtered in the middle of the period, with the Green Archers committing a 24-second violation and turning the ball over, while failing to establish their bigs inside the post.
The Green Archers were able to cut the deficit to four points, 31-35, after a three-point play by Torres, but FEU guard Mike Tolomia drilled a triple at the buzzer -- FEU's sixth triple of the first half -- off a pass from Terrence Romeo to give the Tamaraws a 38-31 halftime lead.
FEU shot over 45% from the field in the first half, including a 6-of-15 clip from beyond the arc. La Salle, meanwhile, converted only 33.3% of their shot attempts.
But after a strong first half, FEU's offense sputtered in the third. They would make on three more triples, and finish the game with a 36.5% shooting clip. La Salle shot 38.7% for the game and dominated the boards, 51-39.
La Salle earned the twice-to-beat advantage after defeating FEU in their playoff game last September 21, 74-69. LA Revilla was the hero for the Archers in that game, exploding for a season high 20 points built on six triples.
The two teams split their elimination round games. The Tamaraws won their first round encounter, 83-79, rallying from a double-digit disadvantage in the final two minutes to prevail in overtime. La Salle struck back in the second round, scoring a 75-66 victory to hand the Tams their second loss of the season at the time.
DLSU 71 - N. Torres 15, Teng 15, Revilla 15, Perkins 8, Van Opstal 6, Vosotros 5, T. Torres 4, Montalbo 3, Tampus 0, Salem 0, De La Paz 0.
FEU 68 - Cruz 16, Romeo 14, Garcia 10, Mendoza 8, Pogoy 6, Belo 5, Hargrove 4, Tolomia 3, Jose 2, Inigo 0, Sentcheu 0.
Quarter-scores: 18-21, 31-38, 52-56, 71-68