MANILA, Philippines – (UPDATED) National University (NU) kept its season alive in dramatic fashion, as the Bulldogs secured a heart-stopping 87-84 come-from-behind win over Far Eastern University (FEU) on Wednesday at the Araneta Coliseum.
Their victory in the see-saw contest, which saw both teams exchange huge runs in the second half, assured that NU remains in the running for the last spot in the Final Four of UAAP Season 80. The Bulldogs improved their record to 5-8 with still a game left in their schedule.
As he has done all throughout the season, J-Jay Alejandro came to NU's rescue in the fourth quarter. The fifth-year guard anchored the crucial 22-2 run in the fourth frame that allowed the Bulldogs to overhaul a 15-point deficit.
He finished with 17 points – 11 of which came in the fourth quarter – while also adding six rebounds and nine assists to his statline. Issa Gaye was a force in the paint, finishing with 24 points on nine-of-14 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds.
"This is what I was expecting from our players," said NU coach Jamike Jarin after their inspiring win. "'Yung maturity, 'di ba? Like what we've said, we can fast-track everything – the talent. But the maturity, the experience, that you cannot fast-track."
"I'm happy right now, because I saw the maturity," he added. "I just hope it's not too late."
It was a costly defeat for the Tamaraws, who were hoping to clinch at least a playoff for a Final Four spot with a win. Instead, they dropped to 6-7, and are in a must-win situation heading into their last game of the eliminations against Adamson University.
FEU was on fire early in the game, knocking down 11 of their 21 attempts from beyond the arc in the first half. Despite their torrid shooting, however, the Tamaraws only had a 47-39 lead at the half, and their advantage disappeared in the third quarter as NU repeatedly got into the paint for easy buckets.
A lay-up by Matt Aquino gave NU a 64-62 lead, but the Bulldogs surrendered 15 unanswered points to bridge the third and fourth quarters. FEU point guard Hubert Cani was at the forefront of the run, scoring seven points including the runner that made it 79-64 with 8:17 left.
That was when Alejandro took over for NU. Repeatedly running a two-man game with Gaye, he assisted on easy buckets for the Senegalese big man then drew fouls against FEU's perimeter defenders. The Bulldogs took the lead for good when Alejandro fired up a three-pointer with 4:55 left for an 82-81 advantage.
Alejandro added another lay-up, then Gaye converted two free throws for an 86-81 lead with 2:58 left.
"J-Jay Alejandro demanded for the ball (in the fourth quarter), we gave him the ball, he made the right decisions, and we executed very well," said Jarin of their fourth-quarter effort. "Hats off to Mr. Alejandro, but it was a total team effort."
NU endured a prolonged scoring drought after Gaye's charities, and FEU cut the lead to just two points after a triple by Ron Dennison with 1:56 to play. Unfortunately for FEU, that would be the last time they got on the board. They wasted several opportunities, including close-range attempts from Prince Orizu in the final minute.
FEU's fate appeared sealed when Wendel Comboy's inbound pass was stolen by Enzo Joson with 13.5 seconds left to play. Joson converted only one of two charities, however, giving the Tams a sliver of hope.
Unfortunately for FEU, the hot three-point shooting that served them so well early in the game abandoned them in the crunch. Arvin Tolentino's attempt at the buzzer clanged off the rim, sending the NU players into a frenzy.
NU outscored FEU, 23-12, in the pivotal final quarter.
Tolentino scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and made five of his 14 three-pointers. Dennison also scored 21 points, but fouled out with 1:18 left to play. The loss wasted a historic shooting performance by the Tamaraws, whose 18 three-pointers were the most by a UAAP team since 2003.
NU 87 – Gaye 24, Alejandro 17, Joson 13, Mosqueda 8, Tibayan 7, Abatayo 6, Aquino 5, Diputado 4, Yu 2, Cauilan 1, Bartlett 0, Morido 0, Salem 0, Rangel 0, Lastimosa 0
FEU 84 – Tolentino 21, Dennison 21, Comboy 16, Cani 14, Inigo 3, Tuffin 3, Ebona 2, Escoto 2, Orizu 2, Parker 0, Trinidad 0
Quarter scores: 19-27, 39-47, 64-72, 87-84
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