CLARE Castro powered Far Eastern University to the UAAP Season 81 women's basketball Finals, repulsing University of Santo Tomas, 68-66, on Wednesday at Smart Araneta Coliseum.
The towering fourth-year center pumped 32 points, along with 15 rebounds and two rejections to steer the Lady Tamaraws back in the championship series for the first time since Season 77 in 2014.
"Hindi namin inexpect na aabot kami ng Finals," admitted coach Bert Flores as he became just the second mentor to steer teams to the Finals in the men's and women's division after Juno Sauler.
"Yung team namin, anim nawala. Nung wala si Clare, puro bulilit kami, para kaming minions. Ngayon, parang may Fajardo na kami. Hindi na kami bulilit," continued Flores as he compared Castro to four-time PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo. "Salamat kami kay Clare na dumating siya."
FEU held on to a 68-66 lead in the final minute but botched its numerous chances to ice the win late. That gave UST one last crack at the basket in the last 6.3 seconds, but Tin Capilit muffed what could have been the overtime-forcing layup as Castro secured the rebound just before the final buzzer.
Fatima Quiapo also uncorked 12 points and six assists for the Lady Tamaraws, while Nina Antiola got nine points, four rebounds, and four dimes in the win.
The two-seed FEU no longer needed its twice-to-beat incentive as it progressed to the Finals for the first time in four years.
The Lady Tamaraws now remain as the last hurdle for the defending champions and five-peat-seeking NU Lady Bulldogs, with Game One of the best-of-three championship duel set on Saturday.
"Hindi namin alam yung opensa na gagawin namin. Kalaban namin yung NU pero malalaki rin sila, pero prepare lang kami. Parang David versus Goliath," remarked Flores.
Castro went hot late in the third quarter and used a 9-1 push to give FEU a 53-43 lead to finish the third period, a lead which further ballooned to 13, 58-45.
But Season MVP Grace Irebu and Sai Larosa willed UST back in the game, using a 14-2 salvo to get to within one, 60-59 with 3:58 remaining.
The Lady Tamaraws, though, were quick to respond with five unanswered points to grab a 65-59 edge with 2:08 to play before Irebu buried a big triple and Larosa canned a pair of charities to make it a two-point game, 68-66 with 51.7 seconds left.
Irebu dropped 28 points, 13 rebounds, and three blocks for the Tigresses.
Tantoy Ferrer got 11 points and four rebounds, while Larosa wound up with 10 points, eight boards, and five assists in the losing cause.
FEU 68 -- Castro 32, Quiapo 12, Antiola 9, Mamaril 7, Taguiam 5, Bahuyan 3, Vidal 0, Bastatas 0, Abat 0, Adriano 0, Payadon 0.
UST 66 -- Irebu 28, Ferrer 11, Larosa 10, Capilit 9, Portillo 5, Rivera 3, Aujero 0, Tacatac 0, Sangalang 0, Magat 0, Gonzales 0.
Quarters: 16-12, 31-30, 53-43, 68-66.