MANILA, Philippines -- (UPDATED) University of the Philippines (UP) broke a 21-year drought on Wednesday, as they overpowered De La Salle University, 97-81, to advance to the Final 4 of the UAAP Season 81 men's basketball tournament.
In front of a passionate crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena, the Fighting Maroons completed a season sweep of the Green Archers to end their elimination round campaign with an 8-6 win-loss record.
That was enough to clinch for them the third seed in the semifinals, thus setting up a showdown with No. 2 Adamson University -- a team that has tormented them twice already in Season 81. The Soaring Falcons will be armed with a twice-to-beat advantage.
This is the first time that UP has advanced to the UAAP Final 4 since 1997, when the Fighting Maroons were coached by Nic Jorge and featured the likes of Paolo Mendoza and the late Bryan Gahol as their stars.
La Salle, for its part, also finished the elimination round with an 8-6 slate, and is still assured of a playoff for a Final 4 spot. If Adamson defeats Far Eastern University (FEU) on Sunday, the Green Archers will claim the fourth seed and face off against archrival Ateneo de Manila University in the semifinals.
"I just painted to them the picture of us not having any accolades in the last decade, and for all of us to have a chance to do this for the community," said UP coach Bo Perasol. "I coached less, I just encouraged them, I made sure that I made some quick reminders, but it was just them."
"I think, they were able to grasp the idea that this is their chance to be able to make history, as far as the UP community is concerned," he added.
Brothers Juan and Javi Gomez de Liano were instrumental in UP's breakaway in the first period. La Salle had a 14-8 lead before Javi found his mark from beyond the arc, sparking an 14-2 run. He added another three-pointer to the scoring spree, before younger brother Juan nailed back-to-back treys to push UP ahead, 22-16, with 43 seconds to go in the first quarter.
The Fighting Maroons never trailed again.
They seized a 52-29 lead at the half, torching La Salle with 7 three-pointers -- six of which were from the Gomez de Liano brothers. The Green Archers repeatedly tried to mount a comeback in the third period, but never got untracked against a determined UP defense that stymied their every option.
La Salle's last chance came early in the fourth quarter, when Joaqui Manuel nailed a technical free throw -- after Paul Desiderio was penalized for faking a foul -- and Encho Serrano scored inside the paint for a 75-57 count with still 8:37 left.
But UP was quick to douse their chances -- thanks, once more, to Javi Gomez de Liano who knocked down back-to-back three-pointers. Desiderio added a triple of his own with six minutes left, and Bright Akhuetie's bucket with 4:48 to go made it 86-62 as the UP crowd at the MOA Arena began to celebrate.
"I think it also helped a lot that we were able to gain a sizable lead," said Perasol. "We just have to focus on the next possession, next two minutes. These are young people that needs to be guided, and I think they responded well."
Juan finished with 27 points on 6-of-12 shooting, and made all 11 of his free throws. Javi added 19 points, while Akhuetie -- the presumptive MVP -- had 16 points and 20 rebounds in a monster performance.
La Salle now has to hope that Adamson is triumphant against FEU on Sunday, if it hopes to avoid a playoff for the last spot in the Final 4.
Justine Baltazar led La Salle with 22 points and 7 rebounds, while Aljun Melecio added 19 markers. However, the Green Archers were never able to recover from UP's onslaught in the first period, when the Gomez de Liano brothers burned them from beyond the arc.
The Green Archers shot 45.07% from the field, but made only 6-of-22 shots from beyond the arc. They had the same number of offensive rebounds, with 16, but the Fighting Maroons made the most of their extra possessions in putting up 17 second chance points.
UP (97) – Ju. Gomez de Liaño 27, Ja. Gomez de Liaño 19, Akhuetie 16, Desiderio 10, Manzo 6, Jaboneta 5, Dario 5, Tungcab 3, Gozum 2, Lim 2, Prado 2, Murrell 0, Vito 0.
DLSU (81) – Baltazar 22, Melecio 19, Caracut 12, Samuel 8, Santillan 6, Montalbo 5, Serrano 5, Bates 2, Manuel 2, Dyke 0.
Quarter scores: 25-17, 52-29, 75-54, 97-81
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