MANILA, Philippines – In what is expected to be an “epic” match-up, the second-seeded University of Sto. Tomas (UST) Growling Tigers will aim to extend their mastery of the third-seeded National University (NU) Bulldogs in the UAAP Season 75 Final Four.
A high-scoring game is expected, as the two squads are among the most explosive in the league, with both teams featuring players who can score anytime.
The Tigers, who have made their reputation as the "comeback kids" of the UAAP, are looking to return to the UAAP Finals for the first time since 2006 – when they won the title under the guidance of then-rookie head coach Pido Jarencio.
Meanwhile, it has been a breakthrough year for the Bulldogs, who made the Final Four for the first time in 11 years. But it is unlikely that the Bulldogs, who entered the season as one of the favorites, are satisfied with just making it to the post-season.
Here’s how the Tigers match-up with the Bulldogs:
The Tigers started the season on the wrong foot, losing to the Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws in their first game. But they soon showed the UAAP that they were a team to be taken seriously when they stunned the Ateneo Blue Eagles by rallying from a 19-point deficit.
The “Comeback Cats” had some issues in the second round – they lost again to the Tams, but this time in blowout fashion, and bowed to the Blue Eagles in their controversial second-round match-up. But the Tigers still racked up 10 wins, the most in the Pido Jarencio era, and clinched a twice-to-beat edge.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs entered the season energized after winning the Fil-Oil pre-season tournament in dominant fashion, but had to undergo some growing pains in the UAAP. They were blown out by the Blue Eagles in the first round and lost a heartbreaking double-overtime game to La Salle as well.
The Bulldogs’ season was also controversial: they lost to the Tams in the second-round on a buzzer-beater by RR Garcia, but the UAAP Board ruled that the game should be re-played. NU won the re-played game, allowing them to clinch the third seed and book a Final Four berth for the first time in over a decade.
The Tigers won both games against the Bulldogs this season, but both times, they had to overhaul sizable deficits. In the first round, Jeric Teng exploded in the second quarter to help UST climb back for a 14-point hole. The Tigers then outscored the Bulldogs 24-11 in the final quarter to complete the comeback.
In their second-round meeting, the Tigers found themselves down by as much as 17 points, but still won in overtime. Jeric Fortuna memorably hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to send the game to an extension, while Aljon Mariano hit the eventual go-ahead jumper for UST.
Big man Karim Abdul will definitely be the player to watch for the Tigers. The double-double machine has been UST’s most consistent player, and will be a big test for NU’s Emmanuel Mbe and Henry Betayene.
At the same time, Teng, Fortuna and Mariano have all shown that they can carry the Tigers to victory, and all three players are fearless in crunch time as well.
For the Bulldogs, there is no doubt that reigning MVP Bobby Ray Parks will be their key to victory. Parks was a man on a mission this season, and he once again led the league in scoring while improving his assists and rebounding numbers. He has also taken the challenge of guarding the other team’s best perimeter players.
NU’s big men tandem of Betayene and Mbe will need to step up, especially defensively, in order to limit Abdul.
Interestingly, the UST-NU match-up will also feature a battle between two of the league’s top MVP candidates. Parks and Abdul topped the race for the UAAP MVP this season, with the NU ace expected to win his second straight MVP award.
On ANC’s "Hardball," InboundsPass columnists Charlie Cuna and Mike Abasolo said they are expecting an “epic battle” between the Tigers and the Bulldogs.
But both analysts believe that the Tigers have the edge, especially in terms of their bench production and experience.
“If (the Bulldogs) step up like they did against FEU, they have a chance,” Cuna said.
Both Cuna and Abasolo predicted the Tigers will take the series in two games.