MANILA, Philippines – (UPDATED) From heartbreak to championship. The Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws completed a season to remember by rallying past the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Growling Tigers, 67-62, to take Game 3 and secure the UAAP Season 78 men's basketball championship Wednesday in front a jam-packed Mall of Asia Arena.
Last season, the Tamaraws were on the wrong end of history when they squandered a 1-0 series lead and lost to National University (NU) in three games in the Season 77 Finals, in what was the Bulldogs' first championship in six decades.
They entered Season 78 with the goal of improving upon their runner-up finish, and in front of a frenzied crowd of 23,124 fans, they achieved it. In the process, they ended a 10-year title drought and won the school's 20th men's basketball title.
Mac Belo, in his final game wearing the green and gold, scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds while playing spectacular defense on UST's Kevin Ferrer en route to winning Finals MVP honors. Along the way, he got help from Roger Pogoy, who sparked the late-game run that overhauled the Tigers' fourth quarter lead and finished with 14 points.
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"My initial reaction was just to be thankful to the Lord, kasi it was a hard game," FEU head coach Nash Racela said afterwards. "(What makes this team special) is the relationship that we have with each other. Medyo cliché, but it's a family."
A tight first half saw both teams enter the break tied at 30-all, with UST shooting over 40% from the field while holding the Tamaraws to only 25.71%. But in the third quarter, Belo took over as he simply burned his defenders – from Karim Abdul to Kent Lao to Louie Vigil – to score nine points.
The Tamaraws eventually led by as much as 10, 51-41, after two free throws by Pogoy.
UST, however, has made a habit of coming back from huge deficits all throughout the season, and they had one more huge run left in them. Two free throws by Kent Lao and a buzzer-beating triple by rookie Marvin Lee sparked a stunning 16-0 run that gave the Tigers a 57-51 advantage with still six minutes left in the game.
Ed Daquioag, after a slow start, took over early in the fourth, scoring six points in the run including back-to-back jump shots that gave his team a six point advantage.
Belo, who cramped up at the start of the fourth frame and had to be subbed out, returned to the game at this point and immediately went to work. He scored on a quick lay-up, only to see Daquioag respond on the other end to make it 59-53 with 4:27 remaining.
"Ang mindset ko talaga, ibigay na ang lahat," said Belo after the game. "Wala ng bukas."
That was when Pogoy took over. The graduating guard scored on back-to-back lay-ups that made it a one-point game, 58-59. After a free throw by Lao momentarily stemmed the tide, Pogoy then drained the go-ahead three-pointer with 1:27 to go, sending the yellow-clad FEU crowd into a frenzy.
Off a missed three by Lee, Tolomia quickly darted to the basket for a lay-up over Karim Abdul that made it 63-60. UST still had chances from that point, even cutting the lead to one after two free throws by Daquioag, but a turnover by Abdul essentially killed their chances of a comeback.
"Sobrang tatag namin," Tolomia said after the game. "Lagi naming pinag-usapan na kahit lumamang ang UST, daanin lang namin sa depensa. Alam namin na ganoon ang laban namin sa UST – lamang sila, lamang kami. 'Di lang kami nag-give up, lalo na sa defense."
Ferrer, whose explosive 29-point performance in Game 2 helped UST force the decider, bricked two three-pointers in the dying seconds to cap a rough outing that saw him make only two of seven field goals.
It was a sorry end to the season for the Growling Tigers, who finished the elimination round with the top seed and had beaten the Tamaraws in both of their elimination round meetings. Yet they fell short once more in the Finals, the third time in the past four seasons that they wound up in second place. UST has not won the UAAP championship since 2006.
Tolomia finished with 13 points and made his mark on the contest despite making only four of 17 field goals. The Tamaraws again out-rebounded the Tigers, 45-37, including 18-11 on the offensive glass.
Daquioag finished with a team-high 21 points, and Abdul had 12 points and five rebounds. Ferrer finished with only six points and was held in check all game by Belo and Pogoy, who refused to let the season's "co-MVP" burn them a second time.
For the Tamaraws, it was the culmination of a tremendous season that helped erase the pain of their heartbreaking Season 77.
"Binaon na namin (ang Season 77) sa limot," said Belo, who averaged 17.3 points, 10.7 rebounds, and one block per game in the Finals. "Ginawa lang namin 'yung tama – kung ano ang dapat naming gawin sa court."
FEU 67 – Belo 23, Pogoy 14, Tolomia 13, Tamsi 6, Ru. Escoto 5, Inigo 3, Jose 2, Orizu 1, Arong 0, Dennison 0, Ri. Escoto 0, Trinidad 0.
UST 62 – Daquiaog 21, Abdul 12, Lee 9, Ferrer 6, Lao 6, Vigil 6, Bonleon 2, Faundo 0, Huang 0, Sheriff 0.
Quarter-scores: 18-19, 30-30, 51-46, 67-62
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