A GRITTY National University survived a searing fourth-quarter fightback by top seed Ateneo to hack out a 78-74 victory and forge a sudden-death match for a place in the UAAP Season 77 finals at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
The fourth-seeded Bulldogs went without a field goal in the last eight minutes and lost a 15-point lead, but they managed to make 10 of their last 14 free throws over the same stretch to stave off elimination.
Reigning MVP Kiefer Ravena,held down to just nine points in the first three quarters, exploded for 15 of Ateneo’s 24 points in the final period to lead the Blue Eagles’ endgame charge.
The 6-0 Ravena scored on a layup off Henri Betayene with 29.7 seconds left to push Ateneo within 74-75.
But NU guard Gelo Alolino, young Jhay Alejandro and Betayene made the free throws that mattered in the endgame to bail out NU, who won for the fifth straight time against Ateneo going back to last season.
The win was also the Bulldogs' first in the Final Four since the format was introduced in 1994.
“Siyempre malaki talaga ang presure kapag No. 1 (seed) ka compared to No. 4 ka, pero di na namin iniiisip iyun. We just want to play our best in this game,” said NU coach Eric Altamirano.
The Bulldogs now go to the sudden-death match on Wednesday looking to completes an upset over Ateneo and reach the UAAP Finals for the first time since winning the school’s only league title in the 1954-55 season.
The Bulldogs got a huge scoring lift from former RP Youth gunner Alejandro, who came off the bench to score a team-high 20 points on a near-perfect 6-of-7 shooting from the field - and 3-of-4 from beyond the arc.
The 6-foot-1 shooting guard also made two clutch free throws to give NU back the lead after Kiefer Ravena hit two big three-pointers and Nico Elorde one in a fourth-quarter run that put Ateneo ahead.
“The breaks didn’t go our way (in the fourth quarter). But I’m proud of the boys because even though the breaks didn’t go our way, they stayed focused, kept their composure and made their free throws in the end,” said Altamirano.
Until his late-game explosion, Ravena struggled to break down NU's defense just like in the two teams' first previous meetings. The Ateneo star ended up with 24 points on 9-of-35 shooting.
NU shot the ball well with its 51 percent shooting, compared to Ateneo’s 34.6 percent clip. The bigger Bulldogs also outrebounded the Eagles, 48-33, but made 26 turnovers.
NU (78) - Alejandro 20, Alolino 16, Khobuntin 12, Aroga 11, Rosario 6, Diputado 5, Javelona 4, Neypes 2, Betayene 2.
Ateneo (74) - K. Ravena 24, Newsome 14, Elorde 12, Pessumal 7, Capacio 6, Tolentino 6, Gotladera 3, Ravena 2.
Quarterscores: 24-14, 44-32, 60-50, 78-74.