MANILA, Philippines—(UPDATED) The dream season continues for University of the Philippines.
Bright Akhuetie hit the game-winning bucket with 2.6 seconds left, and the Fighting Maroons hacked out a thrilling 73-71 triumph over Adamson University in front of a packed crowd at Mall of Asia Arena on Saturday to stay alive in the UAAP Season 81 men's basketball tournament.
It was UP's first triumph in the UAAP final 4 since 1997, and it allowed the Fighting Maroons to force a do-or-die contest against the second-seeded Soaring Falcons.
With the majority of the 14,000-plus crowd at the arena cheering them on, the Fighting Maroons emerged victorious in the cardiac, back-and-forth contest that featured six ties and 10 lead changes.
The deciding game is at Araneta Coliseum on Wednesday.
"While the game was going on, you can't help but hear the crowd. At the back of my mind, (I thought), how can we disappoint this kind of people who are supporting us?" said UP coach Bo Perasol after the game. "My guys just made plays when it mattered."
Graduating swingman Paul Desiderio scored all 19 of his points in the second half — including 10 in the fourth quarter — while Juan Gomez de Liano had 19 as well. Akhuetie only had 6 points on 2-of-5 shooting, but grabbed 14 rebounds and hit the biggest bucket of the game to seal the deal for UP.
The Fighting Maroons, playing at this stage for the first time since 1997, went toe-to-toe with Adamson in the first half, trailing just 29-28 and limiting ace shooter Jerrick Ahanmisi to just two points. They looked headed for a comfortable triumph after outscoring the Soaring Falcons, 26-14, in the third quarter to seize a 54-43 lead.
Everything was going UP's way early in the fourth frame, and the Fighting Maroons were up 60-50 with still 7:33 to go after Gelo Vito scored inside. But Adamson did not fold. Two free throws by Simon Camacho touched off a blistering 13-2 run, pushing the Falcons ahead, 63-62, with still 4:52 to go.
Ahanmisi, silent for most of the game, got on track as he scored five points in the rally, including the go-ahead jumper. Sean Manganti, who broke UP's heart twice in the elimination round, added four points.
"When we got ahead, for sure everybody was thinking that we could have won it right away," Perasol noted. "But Adamson is not No. 2, they're not 10-4 for nothing. They're a very resilient team."
That paved the way for a cardiac finish. The Falcons claimed a four-point lead 69-65 with 2:20 to go off back-to-back lay-ups for Manganti, and it appeared as though Adamson was going to deal the Fighting Maroons yet another brutal loss.
But a lay-up by Vito with 2:09 left kept UP alive, and Juan GDL tied the game at 69 with 49.8 seconds to go off a Papu Sarr foul.
Paul Desiderio, he of the "Atin 'to, papasok 'to" fame, then knocked down a step-back jumper with 5.5 seconds left, pushing UP ahead once more 71-69 and sending the mostly Maroon crowd at the arena into a frenzy.
Manganti, however, was not done. The athletic forward drew a foul from Janjan Jaboneta and calmly knocked down two charities with 3.7 seconds left, tying the game at 71.
But after absorbing two tough losses to Adamson in the elimination round, UP was not going to be denied.
Off a timeout, Juan GDL lofted a perfect pass to Akhuetie, who scooted his way to the rim thanks to a great pick from Desiderio. From there, the UAAP Season 81 MVP easily scored the lay-up, and the Fighting Maroons broke up Adamson's last play in the dying seconds.
"Again, these are the plays that we practice almost every day," Perasol said of the game-winning bucket from Akhuetie. "We're fortunate that he made that point-blank shot at the end of the (game)."
It was an emotional ending to a tense game, with the UP crowd showering Akhuetie with "M-V-P" chants before singing the UP Naming Mahal. But Perasol warns that they are not yet done.
"This is not a done deal," said the coach. "The reason we're joyful is that we're given another chance. But we're not there yet."
Sarr finished with 23 points and 9 rebounds, while Manganti tallied 15 points for the Soaring Falcons. But Ahanmisi made only 2-of-12 attempts for 9 points; Adamson, as a team, made only one of their 22 shots from beyond the arc.
UP 73 – Desiderio 19, Gomez de Liano Ju 19, Manzo 9, Gomez de Liano Ja 9, Akhuetie 6, Prado 4, Dario 3, Jaboneta 2, Vito 2, Murrell 0, Gozum 0, Lim 0, Tungcab 0
ADAMSON 71 – Sarr 23, Manganti 15, Ahanmisi 9, Camacho 8, Lastimosa 7, Espeleta 5, Magbuhos V 4, Pingoy 0, Mojica 0, Catapusan 0, Bernardo 0
QUARTER SCORES: 17-16, 28-29, 54-43, 73-71
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