MANILA - University of the Philippines' rise continued on Sunday, as the Fighting Maroons earned a twice-to-beat advantage for the first time in the Final 4 era with a close win over De La Salle University.
Big baskets by Bright Akhuetie and Kobe Paras down the stretch propelled the Fighting Maroons to a 71-68 win, giving them a 9-4 record heading into their final game of the UAAP Season 82 elimination round.
That ensured that the Maroons will have a semifinals bonus for the first time since the league instituted the Final 4 format in the 1993 season.
"Personally, it was really satisfying because we've really worked hard for this one," said UP swingman Ricci Rivero. "Not just me, but the whole team. Not just the players but the coaches."
Rivero, who made a highly publicized transfer from La Salle to UP in May 2018, matched his season-high with 12 points and even threw down a dunk in the fourth quarter that brought the UP fans to their feet at the Ynares Center.
The result of the game was brutal for La Salle. With the loss, they were formally eliminated from the Final 4 race, making it the second season in a row that they will miss the semis.
While he was aware of the game's implications for his former team, Rivero maintained that he gave no thought to eliminating La Salle from the playoff picture.
"No," he said. "Because what we really are preparing for is to get the second seed."
"So it's not about who we are against, and yeah, but we just want that second seed kasi it's really gonna help us," he added.
"Getting this win, it's really gonna boost our confidence."
Rivero, who was booed by La Salle fans in their first round encounter, is now shifting his attention to their upcoming game against defending champion Ateneo on Wednesday. A win by UP will deny the Blue Eagles of a sweep, and ensure that the Final 4 will be held in its traditional format.
If Ateneo wins, however, they will head straight to the Finals while the other three semifinalists battle in a stepladder format to determine their opponent.
Rivero knows a thing or two about preventing sweeps: he was part of the La Salle team in Season 80 that handed Ateneo its first loss at the end of the elimination round.
"Like what I've been telling my teammates, this isn't gonna end here," he said. "We really have to not think about the game itself, but everything that we're gonna do, and we are supposed to be doing."
"That's what we have to think coming into the game."
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