MANILA, Philippines—(2nd UPDATE) For the first time in 32 years, the University of the Philippines will play in the UAAP Finals.
The Fighting Maroons outlasted Adamson University in an overtime classic 89-87 in front of a packed crowd at the Araneta Coliseum on Wednesday night to advance to the title series of the UAAP Season 81 men's basketball tournament.
Graduating guard Paul Desiderio delivered the dagger jump shot with 6.6 seconds left to peg the final score, and the Fighting Maroons forced Adamson guard Jerom Lastimosa into a tough three-pointer, which Lastimosa missed, in their final possession to seal the deal.
"It wasn't without hard work, it wasn't without tears, it wasn't without challenges," a tearful UP coach Bo Perasol said afterward. "This team will fight no matter what."
"There was a time when we already gave up, but I can just see it — I told myself that if I cannot stand for my team, if I cannot be confident for my team, if I cannot believe for my team, who else will believe?" he added. "So I just kept encouraging them, letting them know that this is not over yet. And that was what happened."
The thrilling triumph sent the third-seeded UP to the finals for the first time since 1986, also the last time the Fighting Maroons won the UAAP championship. They will be playing defending champion Ateneo de Manila University in a best-of-3 finals; the top-seeded Blue Eagles advanced after routing Far Eastern University last Sunday.
It was a truly heartbreaking defeat for the Soaring Falcons, who claimed the twice-to-beat advantage after finishing 10-4 in the elimination round. But they dropped the first game last Saturday, 73-71, on a Bright Akhuetie game-winner, then squandered a six-point advantage in overtime in the do-or-die game.
"If you are going to make a telenovela, how are you going to make it better than that?" said Perasol. "You already won it, then parang iniisip mo, how can you win it better? I'm just happy to be in the Finals . . . We're blessed to have this kind of win."
Game 1 of the finals is on Saturday at Mall of Asia Arena.
Big shot after big shot
The contest was an instant classic, as UP took charge early, and then led by as many as 16 points before Adamson found its groove in the third quarter. The Soaring Falcons outscored the Maroons 23-4 in the final 5:43 of the quarter to seize a 67-64 lead entering the fourth.
From there, it was a back-and-forth battle as the squads exchanged big shot after big shot after big shot. Jun Manzo poached the ball off Jerrick Ahanmisi for a 74-73 count with 3:37 left, and both teams endured a prolonged scoring drought before two free throws by Jerson Prado made it 76-73 at the 1:22 mark.
Jerrick Ahanmisi knocked down a difficult jumper to cut the deficit to one, only to see Manzo score on a difficult bucket inside the paint to again make it a three-point game, 78-75, with just 10.7 seconds left to play.
But the Soaring Falcons still had time, and it was Jerom Lastimosa who answered the call. The unheralded point guard stepped back for a booming three-pointer that tied the game with 2.6 seconds left, sending the Adamson half of the Big Dome into frenzied celebration.
UP still had one last chance in regulation, and they nearly gained the win right then and there as Desiderio's three-pointer swirled in and out of the hoop as the buzzer sounded.
Now brimming with confidence, the Soaring Falcons opened the extra period with six straight points, capped with yet another Lastimosa triple with 2:40 left to play for an 84-78 lead, compelling Perasol to call timeout.
"I had to remind them that it is not over yet," the coach said."I knew that both teams were in penalty. I saw that Papi (Sarr) is also limping, and all of us are tired. It boils down to how we're gonna grind it out. If we can just get two points, then we're able to get a good chance in the end."
UP got its chance thanks to veteran point guard Diego Dario, who pulled up for a free throw line jumper. Juan Gomez de Liano then soared to the hoop for a lay-up, before Bright Akhuetie tied the game at 84 with 69 seconds to go. It was redemption for Akhuetie, who had earlier bricked two free throws off a Sarr foul.
A split at the line by Jonathan Espeleta put Adamson back on top, 85-84, but Desiderio came through for a huge three-pointer with 41.4 seconds left that pushed UP ahead, 87-85.
Lastimosa, however, was not yet done. He drew a foul from Dario and coolly knocked down the game-tying charities for an 87-all count.
That, however, only paved the way for Desiderio's heroics. The veteran guard who gave UP its now famous rallying cry — "Atin 'to" — measured the taller Manganti, before rising up for the jumper that gave them an 89-87 advantage with 6.6 ticks left.
"Walang play 'yun. Nasa kanya 'yun — ang kapal lang talaga ng mukha nito," said Perasol.
And after getting burned by Lastimosa in regulation, the Maroons refused to let him do it a second time. They forced the guard to throw up a triple that missed its mark as time expired, and tears flowed as UP celebrated a historic triumph that they had waited decades for.
"Everybody contributed," said Perasol. "Especially during the end-game defense that we had."
Gomez de Liano, UP's sophomore guard, scored a career-best 30 points, and hit the lay-up that gave the Maroons their biggest lead, 60-44, with 5:57 left in the third quarter. Unfortunately for UP, he struggled with foul trouble the rest of the frame, and with him on the bench the Soaring Falcons caught up.
Desiderio, who finished with 16 points, missed 16 of his first 18 field goals, but went 2-of-2 in the final minute of overtime. His game-winner was his lone make from the two-point area. The veteran guard also added 11 rebounds and four steals.
Akhuetie, the Season 81 MVP, had 13 points and 17 rebounds, and made up for his turnovers early in the overtime period with the crucial lay-up that tied the game with 69 seconds to go.
The Fighting Maroons survived an error-filled game, as they committed 21 turnovers that led to 23 points for Adamson.
Ahanmisi finished with 20 points, while Lastimosa had 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists in one of his finest performances. Sarr had 16 points and 15 boards, while Simon Camacho had 10 points and 6 rebounds.
Manganti, the Adamson player who broke UP's heart twice in the elimination round, struggled with foul trouble all throughout the game and managed only 6 points on 1-of-7 shooting from the field. It was his final game for the Soaring Falcons.
With the result, Adamson's finals drought continues, The Falcons have not made the championship round since 1992. Moreover, they are now 0-8 in semifinals games since the UAAP adopted the final 4 format.
UP (89) -- Gomez de Liaño Ju. 30, Desiderio 16, Akhuetie 13, Gomez de Liaño Ja. 8, Tungcab 6, Prado 6, Dario 5, Manzo 4, Jaboneta 1, Lim 0, Vito 0.
AdU (87) -- Ahanmisi 20, Lastimosa 17, Sarr 16, Camacho 10, Pingoy 7, Manganti 6, Magbuhos V. 6, Espeleta 2, Mojica 2, Bernardo 1.
Quarterscores: 26-16, 51-42, 64-67, 78-78, 89-87.
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