By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
THE semifinal round of Season 80 of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) will be a normal Final Four format as the defending champions De La Salle Green Archers derailed the Ateneo Blue Eagles’ sweep bid yesterday with a 79-76 win on the final play date of the classification phase at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
With the Eagles just a victory away from sweeping the elimination round and earning a direct pass to the final, the Archers made sure such would not be consummated, digging deep and coming up big down the stretch to hand Ateneo its first defeat of the season and forcing a Final Four setup with them having a twice-to-beat advantage instead of a stepladder.
Earlier in the day, the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers avoided finishing the season winless after defeating the University of the East Red Warriors, 88-85.
Ateneo versus La Salle got off to a competitive start with both teams going on runs of their own. The Eagles though would emerge on top when the smoke cleared at the end of the first quarter, holding a 22-17 advantage.
Mbala then started humming in the second period to lead La Salle in overtaking the Eagles and hold a two-point cushion, 37-35, at the halftime break.
In the third period, it was Ateneo’s turn to up the heat, retaking the advantage, 44-43, early on before extending their separation to nine points, 58-49, with three minutes remaining.
The Eagles used it as a cushion to build a 63-54 lead to close out the quarter.
Ateneo opened the final 10 minutes with a three-pointer by Chris Porter to stretch its lead to 12 points, 66-54.
But La Salle answered thereafter with eight quick points to pull within four, 66-62.
The two teams then battled it out as the quarter progressed.
Ateneo kept a one-point lead, 76-75, with 1:20 remaining on the clock until Kib Montalbo handed the lead to La Salle, 77-76, with a short stab with 40 seconds remaining.
The Eagles had a chance to reclaim the advantage but Anton Asistio’s triple did not go in.
Aljun Melecio tried to add on to La Salle’s lead with a drive to the basket but that too failed to connect.
With 12 seconds remaining, Ateneo set up a play that had Isaac Go momentarily getting open down the lane but he missed the shot, prompting him to foul Ricci Rivero off the rebound.
Rivero coolly sank the two free throws given to him to give La Salle a three-point lead, 79-76, with eight seconds remaining.
Ateneo had one last chance to at least tie the match but Asistio’s three-point heave as time expired was blocked to give the Archers the win.
Mbala was all-around for the Archers, chalking up 28 points, 19 rebounds, six steals and six blocks.
Rivero, meanwhile, added 21 points while Abu Tratter came off the bench to provide eight points and six rebounds.
Ateneo, for its part, was paced by Thirdy Ravena with 15 points while Go and Matt Nieto had 13 and 12 points, respectively.
Despite the loss, Ateneo still holds the top seed entering the Final Four with a 13-1 record with La Salle at second at 12-2.
The Eagles face off with no. 4 team Far Eastern University Tamaraws (7-7) while the Archers take on the third-running Adamson Soaring Falcons (9-5). Ateneo and La Salle hold twice-to-beat advantages.
The Final Four begins on Saturday, Nov. 18, with La Salle vs. Adamson at 4 p.m. at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
UST FINALLY WINS
Meanwhile in the first game, UST averted finishing a season without victory with a gutsy victory over UE.
Getting solid contributions from Regie Basibas, especially in the fourth quarter, and towed by the game-long brilliance by Cameroonian Steve Akomo, the Tigers survived the Warriors and in the process ended a 17-game losing streak that dated back to last season.
The Tigers were in control right from the start, claiming the opening quarter, 23-15, before finishing the first half with a 43-39 advantage.
In the third period, the Warriors continued to hound the Tigers but the latter would hang tight to remain ahead, 63-61, at the end of the frame.
UE sustained the momentum it got in the preceding quarter entering the final canto, even claiming its first lead, 65-63, with 8:58 left in the contest.
But the Tigers would regain their footing with Basibas leading the way as they fought off the Warriors’ charge.
The two teams battled to a 77-76 affair with 2:38 to go with UST on top before the Tigers outscored the Warriors, 7-3, in the next minute and half to extend their lead to 84-79.
UE would rack up four straight points to slice the UST lead to just a point, 84-83, with 20 ticks left.
Two free throws from Marvin Lee after gave UST more breathing space, 86-83, but UE pulled within one point anew, 86-85, moments later.
That was the farthest the Warriors could get though as the Tigers banked the win thereafter.
Basibas finished with 21 points and nine rebounds while Akomo had a double-double of 18 points and 20 rebounds to go along with six blocks.
Eric Caunan had 14 points while Lee finished with 10 points.
UE, meanwhile, was led by Alvin Pasaol with 18 points followed by Jason Varilla with 16.
“We’re very happy with this win as we avoided finishing with zero wins. This is part of the rebuilding process for us. It was tough for us this season but hopefully we can build on this win come next season,” said winning coach Boy Sablan, who finished his second year of coaching the Tigers, which finished Season 80 with a 1-13 record.
The Warriors, for their part, wound up their campaign with a 3-11 record.