Defending champion National University barely escaped an ambush mapped out by upset-conscious Letran Wednesday.
Cameroonian import Alfred Aroga completed a go-ahead three-point play then Jeth Troy Rosario came through with two defensive gems in the stretch as the Bulldogs scraped past the Knights 69-67 to barge into the semifinals of the Filoil Flying V Pre-Season Hanes Cup at The Arena in San Juan.
Fresh from a training camp in Perth, Australia, the Bulldogs looked worn out in the early goings and were far from the form that allowed them to fully dominate their eight rivals in Group A.
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Two-time reigning UAAP MVP Bobby Ray Parks Jr. tallied 16 points and four assists while guard Joshua Alolino pumped in all but three of his 13 points in the second canto but it was the clutch exploits of Aroga and Rosario that saved the day for the Bulldogs.
More than extending their astonishing winning run in the pre-season tournament to 20 games, National University also clinched the third semis ticket and will face San Beda, which ousted La Salle in the main event.
Diminutive Mark Cruz tallied 16 markers while promising rookie Rey Nambatac added 11 and lanky center Raymund Almazan dished out a double-double outing of 10 points and 12 rebounds but the Knights simply lacked the killer instinct in the stretch.
The Main Man: Give credit to Aroga’s outstanding play in the payoff canto.
With compatriot Sean Mbe still in sick bay, the 6-foot-6 Cameroonian continued to provide the needed force in the paint for the Bulldogs, racking up seven big points to offset Parks’ offensive struggles in the fourth.
None of those points proved bigger than Aroga’s completed three-point play–thanks to a nifty drop pass from Jay Alejandro–off a Jamil Gabawan foul that put NU back on top 68-67 with 24.5 seconds to play.
Honorable Mention: Rosario’s put-back dunk with more than three minutes to play may be the highlight of his offensive output but it was clearly the pair of defensive stops down the stretch that enabled the Bulldogs to hang on.
After Aroga gave NU a precarious one-point lead, the long-limbed Rosario used his 6-foot-7 frame to the hilt on the defensive end, initially forcing Nambatac to throw a wild three-point attempt.
That tough stance enabled NU to corral the leather and Alolino, a recipient of a pre-emptive foul from Gabawan, split his free throws that virtually pegged the final count with 4.6 ticks to play.
Whatever hopes the Knights have were washed away by Rosario anew, swatting away a potentially game-winning trey from Ford Ruaya as time expired.
Game Turning Point:
Trailing by as many as 51-39, the Knights employed a 2-3 zone defense that made life miserable for the Bulldogs while responding with a big 23-5 onslaught bridging the third and fourth cantos to gain a six-point lead.
Parks finally broke the Bulldog’ long silence with a triple at the 5:39 mark of the fourth and both teams geared up for a tight finish.
Pitted against the relatively young Letran crew, NU showed enough poise in scoring eight of the last 13 points while getting the necessary stops in the stretch.
NU (69) – Parks 16, Alolino 13, Rosario 12, Aroga 9, Villamor 8, Rono 5, De Guzman 3, Mbe 2, Javillonar 1, Alejandro 0.
Letran (67) – Cruz 16, Nambatac 11, Almazan 10, Gabawan 8, Castro 8, Ruaya 6, Luib 5, Dysam 3, Buenaflor 0, Publico 0, Po 0, Pantin 0.
Quarterscores: 19-22, 43-37, 56-58, 69-67