MANILA, Philippines—Widely considered a dark horse at the start of the UAAP Season 82 men's basketball tournament, University of Santo Tomas has exceeded expectations and made it all the way to the finals.
The Growling Tigers upended the talent-laded University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons in the stepladder semifinals, overhauling a twice-to-beat disadvantage to secure the second and last spot in the championship series.
They are now set to take on unbeaten defending champion Ateneo de Manila University in the best-of-3 finals, with the Tigers aiming to spoil the Blue Eagles' bid for a third straight crown.
Game 1 of the finals is at Araneta Coliseum on Saturday.
For UST head coach Aldin Ayo, his squad's current standing is a direct result of its hard work, work that started far earlier than other UAAP teams.
"We started Nov. 28," he revealed.
On that day in 2018, the Fighting Maroons were in the process of beating the Adamson Soaring Falcons to make it to the finals for the first time in over 30 years.
While UP was losing to Ateneo in the finals, the Tigers were already playing games, said Ayo.
"On Game 2, exactly may laro rin kami," he said. "Kalaban namin ang Team B ng (National University). When Ateneo won the championship, tinalo kami ng Team B ng NU. Hindi nga kasali sa UAAP."
"Sabi ko sa mga bata, grabe tatrabahuin natin," Ayo added.
Given how far they had to go, Ayo and the Growling Tigers knew they had to make sacrifices. They already started earlier than most teams and they also decided not to take days off for holidays.
"Nag-trabaho kami nang nagtrabaho," said Ayo. "Ten of the players spent their Christmas doon sa Sorsogon. Walang Christmas break itong mga 'to."
"And tuloy-tuloy," he added. "Nagta-twice a day kami. Lahat ng hirap, 'yung struggles, 'yung mga distractions, everything."
All those efforts have now paid off, in the form of UST's first finals appearance since 2015.
"Ang pinaka dahilan kung bakit ganito is grabe 'yung trinabaho namin. Grabe ininvest namin dito," said Ayo.
"Kung tinatanong niyo kami kung bakit ganu'n, well, those are the reasons. Pinaghirapan namin 'to."
They have one more mountain to climb, however, in the form of the Blue Eagles who have so far hurdled every challenge thrown their way in Season 82.
UST has proven to be Ateneo's toughest contender, losing to the Blue Eagles by an average margin of 7.5 points. They came close to beating the defending champions, as Ateneo hacked out a 71-70 win in their first meeting.
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