UNIVERSITY of the Philippines ended 32 long and weary years of solitude yesterday against an equally-determined Adamson University.
The Fighting Maroons scored a breathtaking 89-87 decision in overtime in their do-or-die Final Four duel to gain a finals slot opposite defending champion Ateneo in the 81st UAAP basketball tournament before a jampacked crowd at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Playing in its biggest game in three decades and in front of 20,944 fans, UP sustained its title dreams despite squandering a 16-point third quarter spread. The Maroons stepped up when it mattered most behind the likes of Diego Dario, 6-foot-8 Nigerian import Bright Akhuetie, and graduating skipper Paul Desiderio.
A Jerom Lastimosa three-pointer gave Adamson an 84-78 lead in overtime but the Maroons refused to lie down and die and went on an 11-3 windup en route to their first finals appearance since 1986, the year they won the crown behind a team led by Benjie Paras and coached by Joe Lipa.
Game 1 of the best-of-3 finals is set this Saturday, Dec. 1, at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Desiderio capped UP’s fightback with a clutch jumper over the outstretched arms of Falcon Sean Manganti that pegged an 89-87 count, only 6.6 ticks left.
Adamson had a chance to steal the win but Lastimosa’s last-gasp triple missed its mark as the Maroons’ faithful celebrated frenzy and the Adamson gallery wept in agony.
Juan Gomez De Liano led UP with a game-high 30 points, to go with six rebounds and two assists, while Desiderio notched a double-double of 16 markers and 11 boards.
Akhuetie, the league’s leading MVP contender, added 13 and 17 as the third-ranked Maroons completed a stunning ouster of the No. 2 and twice-to-beat Falcons.
UP also edged Adamson 73-71 last Saturday to forge the rubber match.
An emotional Maroons coach Bo Perasol said the team’s unlikely run to the Big Dance is a product of the hard work of his charges.
“I made that promise (change the culture in UP). But before that, I made a promise to God that if we made it to the finals, the glory would belong to Him. So, I thank Him,” said Perasol.
“We made it. It wasn’t without hard work, it wasn’t without tears and challenges,” he added.
UP took a 51-42 lead at the half and led by as much as 60-44 on a Juan Gomez De Liano basket at the 5:56 mark of the third canto.
The Falcons battled back and grabbed a 67-64 cushion going into the payoff period.
The Maroons seemed to have the victory in the bag after taking a 78-75 buffer on a Jun Manzo runner with 10.7 seconds remaining in the fourth.
But Lastimosa sank a left corner trey to tie the match at 78-78 and Desiderio missed a three-pointer with 2.6 seconds left.
Jerrick Ahanmisi paced Adamson with 20 points while Lastimosa, 6-foot-6 Cameroonian reinforcement Papi Sarr, and Simon Camacho had 17, 16, and 10, respectively.
Added Perasol: “We could have already given up. I told myself that if I cannot stand for my team, if I cannot be confident for my team, if I cannot believe in my team, who else would believe? I know that this team is going to go through it.”
(MICHAEL JUGADO, Malaya)