MANILA - (UPDATED) For the first time in the Final 4 era, University of the Philippines will be armed with a twice-to-beat advantage in the semifinals.
This, after the Fighting Maroons weathered a tough challenge from De La Salle University to hack out a 71-68 victory in the UAAP Season 82 men's basketball tournament, Sunday at the Yñares Center in Antipolo.
With the win, UP now has a 9-4 win-loss record, clinching for them the second seed in the Final 4 -- and with it, the all-important win-once bonus. They will wrap up their elimination round schedule on Wednesday against defending champion Ateneo, where they will try to deny the Blue Eagles a sweep.
La Salle, for its part, is now eliminated from the semifinals race with the defeat. The Green Archers needed to win their two remaining assignments to force a playoff for the fourth seed, but fell short against a fired-up UP squad on Sunday.
"How could we disappoint our community who came here in throngs, kept on supporting us all through the season?" said UP coach Bo Perasol after the game.
"I have to give honor to them for just being warriors. Everybody contributed," he added. "Right now, we're given the chance to be proud of what we have done."
UP appeared to be cruising to victory after leading by as much as 16 points, 27-11, in the second period. But the Green Archers responded with a stunning 21-0 run, capped by a three-pointer from Aljun Melecio, swung the lead back to La Salle, 32-27, with under three minutes left.
The Maroons ended the first half on a strong note, responding with an 8-2 run to take a 35-34 lead to the break. Jun Manzo provided a preview of his crunch time heroics by nailing the three-pointer that pushed UP ahead.
They tried to break the game open in the fourth period anew, with Ricci Rivero drilling a triple to make it a 13-point game, 58-45.
Again, however, La Salle refused to go away easily. Key buckets from Aljun Melecio and Jamie Malonzo kept them in the game, and an Encho Serrano lay-up gave them a slim 68-66 lead with 1:35 remaining.
Bright Akhuetie responded with an inside bucket to knot the count, and UP's defense came through as they forced a turnover in the next possession. Manzo set up the Maroons' next play masterfully, assisting on Kobe Paras' slam dunk that gave them the lead for good, 70-68, with 54 seconds left.
La Salle came up empty in their next possession, with Melecio bricking a triple. They still had a chance when Serrano came up with the ball on a 2-on-3 break, but the sophomore forward threw up a wild shot that ricocheted off the backboard. UP controlled the rebound, and after La Salle was forced to give up fouls, Manzo coolly made the first of two free throws and missed the next, allowing time to expire.
Akhuetie had 17 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals, while Ricci Rivero tied his season-high with 12 points. Manzo finished with 11 points, 8 assists, and just one turnover in 30 minutes of action, as UP shot 41.43% from the field.
Malonzo had 17 points and 11 boards for La Salle, while Justine Baltazar also had a double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds. But the big man struggled from the field, making 3-of-15 field goals only. The Green Archers, as a team, shot just 30.67%, though they made up for it with 19 second chance points off 21 offensive rebounds.
La Salle dropped to 6-7 heading into their final game of the season against Adamson. This marks the second year in a row that the Green Archers have missed the semifinals.
UP 71 -- Akhuetie 17, Rivero 12, Manzo 11, Paras 10, Ja. Gomez de Liano 8, Webb 6, Ju. Gomez de Liano 3, Prado 2, Tungcab 2, Spencer 0.
LA SALLE 68 -- Malonzo 17, Melecio 12, Baltazar 10, Bates 8, Serrano 8, Lojera 4, Manuel 4, Bartlett 3, Hill 2, Caracut 0.
Quarters: 21-11, 35-34, 55-45, 71-68.
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