MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) - University of Sto. Tomas (UST) head coach Pido Jarencio called it "destiny." The Tigers, who flew under the radar at the start of the season, are going back to the UAAP Finals after holding off a last-quarter charge by the National University (NU) Bulldogs, 63-57, in their Season 75 Final Four match-up Saturday at the Araneta Coliseum.
UST's Jeric Fortuna runs a play against NU during the semifinal clash. The Tigers defeated the Bulldogs, 63-57, to win a UAAP Finals seat. Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com
The second-seeded Tigers, who had a twice-to-beat advantage going into the game, used their advantage in experience and depth to survive a late rally by the Bulldogs, who were playing in the Final Four for the first time in 11 years.
"This is for the UST community," Jarencio said. "Sa mga alumni, sa mga estudyante, sa kaparian, at sa mga magulang ng mga players sa line-up ko."
"Kami ay inspired dahil sa kanila," he added.
Sophomore swingman Kevin Ferrer was the surprise package for the Tigers. The former UAAP Juniors Most Valuable Player scored a season-high 17 points, including 15 in the first half, and played lockdown defense on National U star Bobby Ray Parks.
"Yung depensa ko kay Parks, alam ko 'yun ang ikakapanalo namin," Ferrer said.
Parks scored only 12 points, his second lowest outing of the season, and was ineffective in the fourth quarter even as the Bulldogs mounted their final rally of the game. He did have 10 rebounds and four assists but it was not enough to keep the Bulldogs from getting eliminated.
Trailing 50-59 after a Jeric Fortuna triple, the Bulldogs scored seven straight points, four coming from point guard Joshua Alolino, to cut the lead to 2, 57-59, with 2:34 remaining.
UST's Aljon Mariano misfired on a three-pointer in their next possession, but Jeric Teng was able to secure the offensive rebound.
Mariano then extended their lead to 4, scoring on a lay-up to make it 61-57 with 1:53 to go.
The Bulldogs had several chances to cut into the lead, but they bricked three attempts from beyond the arc in the final minute.
Fittingly, it was Ferrer who put the finishing touches on the game when his lay-up at the buzzer trickled in.
"Breaks of the game na rin," Jarencio said "Maganda rin ang nilaro ng NU. Pero ang breaks of the game... Hindi na sila nakaka-shoot, nahihirapan na rin sila."
Neither team was particularly efficient from the field: UST made only 33.3%, while NU was slightly better at 33.9%.
But for Jarencio, the game boiled down to desire.
"Ang sabi ko sa kanila, it's about desire - kung sino ang may kagustuhan na manalo," he explained.
"Siguro, blessing in disguise na rin. Kahit papaano, nandito tayo, nasa Finals. From the start, hindi tayo pinag-uusapan [na mag-Finals]," Jarencio added.
UST dark horses
The Tigers were considered dark horses to make it to the Final Four at the start of the season. But with big man Karim Abdul putting together an MVP-level season, and Teng, Fortuna and Mariano giving consistent contributions, the Tigers compiled a 10-4 record and gained a twice-to-beat advantage.
They were also among the deepest teams in the league, with bench players like Clark Bautista and Louie Vigil proving capable of picking up the scoring load if one of their stars were off.
Against National U, it was Ferrer who stole the spotlight. The former Tiger Cub's explosion was timely, as Teng misfired for much of the first half.
"Hindi ko inaasahan ang game na ito," Ferrer said, explaining that he was confined to the UST Hospital in the week leading up to the game. "Pero sobrang saya ko kasi second year ko pa lang, nakapasok na kami sa Finals."
The last time the Tigers made the Finals, they upset the Ateneo Blue Eagles in three games to win the championship in Season 69.
"Cinderella talaga ang dating noon," Jarencio said of the 2006 team, which was also his rookie year as head coach.
"Eto, it's a different story.... Siguro, may destiny talaga ang team na it," he added. "'Yung preparasyon namin, sobra-sobra. Itong team na ito, ready. Kahit sino, ready."
It was a bittersweet ending for the Bulldogs, who endured a controversial season en route to their first Final Four appearance in 11 years.
Lack of maturity
NU head coach Eric Altamirano admitted that his team still lacked the maturity to compete in the Finals, but is hopeful that their failure this year will give them inspiration.
Considered as a potential title contender entering Season 75, the Bulldogs had difficulty dealing with the top-tier teams. They lost both games against the Tigers in the elimination round.
Meanwhile, Parks is also hopeful that National U will continue their improvement next year.
"I'm still hungry for that title. Last year, I got the MVP. This year we made it to the Final Four. I want to see where it goes next year," he said.
Parks, who is set to win his second straight MVP trophy, said the heartbreak they experienced this season will help the team grow.
"Hopefull, next year we'll be better," he said.
The game was close throughout, featuring six deadlocks and eight lead changes. The Bulldogs never let the Tigers pull away, even with Ferrer sniping from the outside and Abdul (15 points, 8 rebounds) outworking NU's Emmanuel Mbe (4 points, 11 rebounds) inside the paint.
The Bulldogs even took control in the third quarter, using an 11-2 run to turn a five-point deficit into a 49-45 lead.
But UST quickly erased the deficit as they went on an 11-1 run at the end of the third quarter to go into the fourth leading 56-50.
The two squads only scored a combined 14 points in the fourth quarter, but it was UST who hit the more timely shots.
Notes: NU's Kyle Neypes was called for an unsportsmanlike foul early in the second quarter and was ejected from the game. NU's Emmanuel Mbe was also called for an unsportsmanlike foul in the third quarter. UST's Karim Abdul was also called for an unsportsmanlike foul in the third.
UST 63 - Ferrer 17, Abdul 15, Mariano 14, Fortuna 8, Teng 6, Vigil 3, Pe 0, Lo 0, Bautista 0, Afuang 0
NU 57 - Javillonar 15, Parks 12, Alolino 8, Villamor 6, Betayene 5, Mbe 4, Khobuntin 3, Rono 2, De Guzman 2, Singh 0, Neypes 0, Labing-isa 0
Quarter scoring: 17-18, 38-34, 56-50, 63-57