The UST Growling Tigers exorcised the ghost of last year's painful Finals loss to Ateneo, and also made the curtain drop on the Blue Eagles era of dominance.
Their 82-74 victory on Wednesday, the final elimination round match, was a fascinating mixed bag, with some strong inside play coupled with big buckets down the stretch that booked them a Final Four date against NU and eliminates Ateneo.
There was a feeling that it wasn't going to be Ateneo's day early on, when Chris Newsome was called for two early fouls, both, curiously, on double fouls with Aljon Mariano and Kevin Ferrer.
Then with barely three and a half minutes gone, the rookie drove outside the three-point area and made contact with Ferrer. Offensive foul. Ferrer's feet were dancing on the play, but replays showed a slight ward-off that was enough for cause the ref to blow his whistle. Newsome didn't protest the call.
And just like that, Newsome, considered to by Ateneo's finest defender, was saddled with three fouls. He went to the bench right after the play and wouldn't return until the third quarter.
"Having Newsome in foul trouble so early was hard for us. He is the heart and soul of our D" said Sandy Arespacochaga, who coached in place of the suspended Bo Perasol.
The first half was the Karim Abdul show, with the big Cameroonian repeatedly scything through the soft center of the Ateneo paint and picking off easy baskets, most against the tame resistance of JP Erram. For once, Abdul played as if he deserved a “Jabbar” at the end of his name.
Karim racked up nineteen of his 25 points in the first twenty minutes. His overall line was superb: 11 of 18 for 61% shooting, nine rebounds, one steal and five blocks.
Down 26-39 in the start of the third quarter, Ateneo made a game of it with some big shots from Nico Elorde and Ryan Buenafe. When Kiefer Ravena banked in a trey, the Eagles even led 48-45.
At the start of the fourth UST nervously clung on to a 52-51 lead. But once the fourth quarter began, the inevitable occurred.
A look at the stat sheet reveals that the Tigers shot only four of nineteen from beyond the arc. That would usually spell doom for a perimeter-oriented club like Santo Tomas. But three of those four three-bombs came in the 13-2 run to open the fourth period, two from Clark Bautista and one from Jeric Teng. The ensuing 65-53 cushion proved to be enough for UST even though Ateneo did claw back to within five until a Jeric Teng free throw-a-thon sealed Ateneo's fate.
Teng finished with seventeen markers and two three-pointers. Crucially he also nailed five of six three throws, including four in a row in the endgame that helped ice the contest.
“Basketball lang ang lalaruin namin” said Teng afterwards when he was asked about his upcoming matchup with NU's Jeoffrey Javillonar, who took him out with a hard foul in their first round meeting.
Spare a thought for Ed Daquioag, who pumped in a useful thirteen points for the Growling Tigers.
Ateneo shot miserably from the field, just 35.7% (25 of 70) and committed fifteen turnovers to UST's thirteen. Twelve of those Ateneo giveaways were in the first half. But for certain the big difference was Erram and Frank Golla's inability to corral Abdul. Ateneo's two bigs couldn't contribute much on the other end of the court either, as they were both held to four points.
Had Newsome not so rashly picked up his early third foul, perhaps he could have chipped in the help defense that could have gutted out the win.
One more “what if” for Ateneo: might things have gone differently had the re-suspended Perasol been allowed to call the shots instead of Arespacochaga? Unlike the previous game, Perasol was conspicuous in his absence at the Big Dome. It's likely he was nowhere near the Cubao zip code on Wednesday.
For the first time since 2007, a team other than Ateneo will hoist the UAAP Men's Seniors Basketball trophy in a few weeks time. And the Blue Eagles took it hard. Ravena was so distraught that he skipped the singing of the alma mater song and bolted straight to the locker room after the game.
Juami Tiongson could not contain his anguish, and all throughout the singing of the school song could be seen with a towel draped over his head, apparently sobbing.
Von Pessumal, who had a big game with eight points, was similarly in tears, as was Erram, who offered a game to forget in his final outing for Ateneo.
"There will always be hard times but they shouldn't define you" said a philosophical Arespacochaga after the game. "Life goes on" he added.
But perhaps one player Ateneo will miss most is Buenafe. His decent outing (nine points, seven rebounds, one-for-five from beyond the arc) featured one last fleeting glimpse of his brilliance.
Down 75-64 late, Buenafe rose up to seemingly jack up yet another three. But he spotted Newsome darting towards the paint and at the last moment unspooled a terrific bullet pass to the American, who converted an easy layup.
It was a play that perhaps typified his career: unselfish, smart, and always unpredictable.
But the day belonged to UST and their throngs of gold-clad fans. They may be fourth seed going against twice-to-beat versus mighty NU, but after a gutty performance on Wednesday, these cats simply can't be counted out.
Follow Bob on Twitter @bhobg333.