UNIVERSITY of the Philippines proved its championship mettle down the stretch, banking on a strong finish to hold off Ateneo, 72-66, and move a win away from a UAAP Season 85 Men’s basketball championship repeat on Sunday.
Zavier Lucero and Harold Alarcon made the biggest plays to halt a late rally from the Blue Eagles and hush half of the 18,211 fans at the jampacked Mall of Asia Arena.
After waiting 36 years for a UAAP championship, the Maroons have a chance to win two league titles in the same calendar year when Game Two of the best-of-three finale is played on Wednesday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
The defending champions took control early, leading by as many as 12 points in the first half, and they were never really threatened until early in the fourth when Ange Kouame drained a three pointer to trim the Maroons’ lead to two, 56-58.
The Blue Eagles had a chance to tie the game on the next possession with Chris Koon looking to slam it home, but Lucero rejected the attempt emphatically – with his block resulting in an Alarcon three-pointer a few seconds later in a five-point swing, giving the Fighting Maroons a 61-56 lead.
That would ignite a 10-2 rally capped by another Alarcon three-pointer that enabled the Maroons to bring the lead back up to 68-58 with 4:37 remaining in the game.
The closest the Blue Eagles got after that was within four, and they had a chance to creep even closer but Lucero once again came through with a huge defensive play, swatting away Kouame’s putback attempt with 32 seconds remaining.
JD Cagulangan put the game on ice with two free throws.
“Defensively we started well. 'Yung movement ng bola was there. I like the way the team was looking for the open man. They had their run kanina but atleast na-sustain naman namin yung lead nung fourth,” UP coach Goldwin Monteverde said.
Lucero finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks to lead the Fighting Maroons, who only trailed by two in the early goings of the fourth quarter and never looked back since.
Cagulangan filled the stat sheet with 12 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two steals while Alarcon finished with 13 points, including two three pointers late that doused the Ateneo comeback.
Forthsky Padrigao led Ateneo with 16 points but had to go out midway through the second quarter because of cramps. The Blue Eagles' starting point guard returned briefly but sat out the endgame.
Kouame finished with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds.
UP 72 - Lucero 14, Cagulangan 12, Alarcon 11, Diouf 9, Gonzales 8, Tamayo 7, Galinato 6, Spencer 5, Fortea 0, Abadiano 0.
ATENEO 66 - Padrigao 16, Kouame 15, Ildefonso 10, Andrade 10, Koon 9, Lazaro 3, Chiu 2, Gomez 1, Ballungay 0, Daves 0, Quitevis 0, Lao 0.
Quarters: 28-19, 42-35, 54-50, 72-66.