UP Fighting Maroons center Malick Diouf during a game against the Adamson Falcons in the UAAP Season 85 men’s basketball Final Four at Araneta Coliseum. UAAP PHOTO
MANILA, Philippines — On their return trip to the Finals, the University of the Philippines (UP) will be motivated by something phenomenal, unheard off in UAAP men’s basketball which the pandemic had a hand in forcing and gave this band of Fighting Maroons the chance, that of winning the title twice on the same year.
The defending champions moved closer to that extraordinary goal after herding the National University (NU) Bulldogs to the exits with a come-from-behind 69-61 win in the first game of their Final Four showdown in Season 85 on Wednesday.
“This win is very important. Back-to-back Finals, we have the chance to make history,’’ said defense-oriented guard Gerry Abadiano, whose leaning short jumper late in the fourth quarter ignited UP’s big run that finished off the Bulldogs.
Ateneo also made quick work of Adamson, taking an 81-60 win to also make a return trip to the Finals and another shot at the Maroons.
The Eagles can start avoiding being sorry footnotes to the Maroons’ chase of history as the best-of-three series starts on Saturday.
Unlike their path to the championship the previous season, the Maroons went through a quicker route this time to the best-of-three Finals where a victory could install UP as the only team to chalk up the feat.
“It (two championships) will mean a lot to us. We’ve been working hard for this, to be in the Finals,’’ said UP coach Goldwyn Monteverde after the Maroons avoided maximizing their twice-to-beat edge over the third-ranked Bulldogs.
Malick Diouf pulled off a stellar performance and could well walk away with the season Most Valuable Player (MVP) plum, but the 6-foot-10 Senegalese won’t be happy with merely capturing an individual award.
“I’m not thinking about the MVP, I’m thinking of the Finals and that’s more important. This win made us happy right now because [of the opportunity to play] back-to-back in the Finals,’’ said Diouf after putting up handsome figures of 17 points and 21 rebounds in a productive, all-around effort.
The Maroons finished off the Bulldogs with a 9-0 windup with JD Cagulangan capping it with a free throw and a three on his favorite corner reminiscent of his heroic shot in the championship last season.
Offense conks out
On the other end, NU just couldn’t buy a basket, bungling all of its attempts in a major stretch as the Bulldogs ended up without a field goal in the last four minutes.
Kean Baclaan’s high-arching three found the mark for a 59-56 NU advantage, but the Bulldogs eventually squandered the chance after missing all of their attempts from the field afterwards.
Zavier Lucero also contributed in a big way, scoring 12 points and plucking 11 rebounds in the absence of Carl Tamayo, who twisted his ankle in the first quarter.
Tamayo accidentally stepped on Michael Malonzo’s foot in a rebound scuffle and was led off the court with only five minutes gone in the game, his right foot sore and in deep pain.
It quieted the UP faithful that came in full force at Smart Araneta Coliseum and put the Maroons on edge.
“We lost Carl in the first half. He was not 100-percent and we responded well to the challenge given to us,’’ said Monteverde, who felt relieved after hearing that his do-it-all forward can suit up in the championship opener.
“It’s a big thing that we were able to hurdle NU. What’s important here is, whether it’s two games or one game, we’re back in the Finals,’’ said Monteverde.