UNIVERSITY of Santo Tomas defied the seedings as well as history on Saturday afternoon, pouncing on an emphatic collapse by National University in the endgame to pull off a 76-69 victory and book a return trip to the UAAP Finals.
Kevin Ferrer was the man of the match for UST, hitting one three-pointer and a free throw in the endgame surge that took the fight out of the top-seeded Bulldogs and made the Tigers the first No. 4 seed to reach the title series since the Final Four format was institutionalized in 1994.
Jeric Teng, Aljon Mariano, and Jamil Sheriff also made big plays in the game-turning run that saw Bobby Ray Parks and the rest of the Bulldogs collapse like a deck of cards before horrified supporters in a crowd of almost 18,000 at the Mall of Asia Arena.
When it was over, UST coach Pido Jarencio was an emotional wreck on the sidelines as he looked back on the roller-coaster ride of the Tigers from a struggling, injury-plagued team in the eliminations to a surging band of players now two wins away from a championship.
"Hindi ko akalain na aabot kami sa Finals. At alam mo na, lahat ng tao nagdududa sa kakayahan ko," said a teary eyed Jarencio after the match.
After beating the Bulldogs for the second time in a week's span, the Tigers arranged a best-of-three showdown with De La Salle and got a shot at their first league championship in seven years.
UST, a losing finalist to five-time champion Ateneo last season, trailed 56-61 entering the final five minutes when the underrated Ferrer hit a three-pointer to kick off an 11-0 assault that formed a major part of the Tigers' telling 17-8 windup.
The Bulldogs simply had no answer during that stretch and in fact aided the Tigers' cause with three turnovers, including an inexplicable outlet pass to no one which Sheriff turned into an uncontested layup, 69-61, with 1:09 remaining.
Parks finished with 15 points but was a non-factor in the final moments, missing a triple and a lay-up in a failed bid to keep UST within reach. The two-time MVP was also forced to sit out the final 53 seconds of the game as he sustained cramps while reaching for Robin Rono’s high pass which led to yet another turnover.
The loss put a disappointing end to the season of NU, which took the top seeding for the first time in school history after a 10-4 win-loss stint in the elims but ended up as the first No. 1 team to miss the championship series under the Final Four format.
Teng had 19 points to lead UST in scoring and was rewarded with a finals match-up with his brother Jeron's Green Archers in his fifth and final year with the Tigers.
Game One of the best-of-three Finals will be on Wednesday at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.
UST (76) – Teng 19, Ferrer 18, Mariano 12, Bautista 8, Sheriff 6, Abdul 6, Daquioag 3, Lo 2, Pe 1, Lao 1.
NU (69) – Parks 15, Mbe 10, Alolino 10, Javelona 9, Villamor 8, Rosario 6, Rono 6, Khobuntin 3, Javillonar 2, Neypes 0, Alejandro 0.
Quartescores: 19-10; 31-31; 50-49; 76-69.