Ateneo and University of the Philippines (UP) showed poise and character befitting tags as UAAP title favorites on Wednesday as they carved out hard-fought wins over separate foes in Season 86 of the men’s basketball tournament.
Slowly getting their groove after on-and-off performances, the Blue Eagles had to dig in the trenches to topple hard-fighting University of the East (UE), 76-69, at Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City to get back to a level 2-2 slate and get their title-retention bid back on track.
The Maroons, meanwhile, were pushed to the proverbial limit, and even more, by winless Far Eastern University (FEU), as they needed an extra five minutes to pull out an 80-76 win and keep the elimination round lead with a 4-0 card.
The likely challenger to the champions of the last two seasons, meanwhile, showed how good it could be after it bounced back from its first loss in a fashion no one hears often.
National U defanged the University of Santo Tomas’ Growling Tigers with impunity later, scoring an 87-69 win using a game plan that only the Bulldogs came up with.
“I didn’t have anything to do with the game plan. They were the ones who came up with it,” National U coach Jeff Napa said in Filipino. “I had nothing to do with it, because I walked out on them (at practice).”
First period breakaway
The game was close only early in the first period, when it was tied at 12, before the Bulldogs rattled off baskets one after the other to take a 30-14 lead into the second quarter as National U rose to 3-1.
“Anytime you get a W (win) it feels good as a team. This year is gonna be about growth, but I feel like we need to grow fast,” said Kai Ballungay, who spearheaded an Ateneo run in the payoff period to give the Blue Eagles some breathing room.
Finishing with 18 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, Ballungay got help from Jared Brown, who knocked down crucial three-pointers that eventually doomed UE to its second loss also in four games.
“I thought our first half we didn’t play good defense and it was an individual letdown, the intensity wasn’t there,” Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin said. “Third quarter wasn’t much better but the fourth quarter was. We really dug down deep and defended much more intelligently.”
The intelligent defense that Baldwin was referring to played a vital role and kept the Red Warriors scoreless in the dying minutes of the fourth quarter, with Joseph Obasa showing his worth by finishing with 16 points, eight rebounds and six blocks.
While Ateneo converted on 25-of-34 free throw attempts off 30 Warriors fouls, UE sank just one charity the entire game.
The Fighting Maroons survived a big blunder by Malick Diouf at the end of regulation, as UP gutted it out in extension to stay perfect.
Francis Lopez was denied of a buzzer-beating game when the referees called Diouf for an offensive basket interference, taking away the two points and sending the game to overtime.
The Tamaraws, who remained winless in four games, were the first squad to take the Maroons to a close endgame, with UP having won its previous three in lopsided styles.
“As coach [Goldwin Monteverde] always says, as the season progresses, every game is a chance for us to improve … Even though we had 21 turnovers, it was just one of those games where we were fortunate that FEU was only able to convert 13 (points) off them,” said UP assistant coach Christian Luanzon.
Lopez and Diouf combined for six straight points in the overtime, 77-73, with 1:42 left before Jorick Bautista drained a trey and closed the gap once again for the Tams.
“Coach Gold always tells us to be ready for whatever situation, easy or difficult, we should surpass those challenges,” said Janjan Felicilda, who finished with 17 points.
Both teams played without key players as the Fighting Maroons were without Gerry Abadiano, who is under the league’s concussion protocols, while the Tamaraws missed usual starter Cholo Añonuevo due to a fractured right hand.
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CJ Cansino contributed 14 points and Diouf 11 points and 10 rebounds as UP guns for a fifth consecutive win on Saturday against another winless team in Santo Tomas.