MANILA, Philippines - Far Eastern University underscored its serious bid for the UAAP Season 73 men’s basketball crown as it outlasted defending back-to-back champion Ateneo in a thrilling finish, 72-69, in duel of pre-season favorites at the Araneta Coliseum yesterday.
RR Garcia, thrust into the leadership role in only his second year, responded big time by scoring a game-high 25 points, four of them in the final 1:14 as the Tams finally staved off the Eagles, who kept on coming back and tied the game last at 67.
The win was some sort of a statement game for the Tams, who have not beaten the Blue Eagles since their 70-66 triumph on July 31, 2008.
“Some quarters are questioning the heart of the boys because we’re up against the defending champions. But I’m happy that they showed poise and did not waver at endgame,” said coach Glen Capacio, whose wards finished No. 2 last year in the eliminations but failed to make it to the finals.
After fighting Ateneo to nine deadlocks and several lead changes, FEU went to the 20-year-old Garcia and its no-nonsense defense down the stretch to pull off the hard-earned win.
The former RP youth standout cut loose from Kirk Long, canned a layup with a foul to boot from the American guard and completed the three-point play to give FEU a three-point cushion.
A long shot from Ryan Buenafe cut FEU’s lead to 70-69 but Garcia made it a two-point lead on a split off Long with 12 seconds left in the contest.
Nico Salva flubbed a potential game-tying undergoal try in Ateneo’s last possession with Reil Cervantes grabbing the rebound, drawing a foul from Ateneo rookie Edwin Escueta, and making one foul throw for the final count.
Ateneo coach Norman Black, whose team absorbed its first opening-game loss since a 60-78 setback to La Salle in 2005, blamed the loss to their shooting woes and inability to control the boards.
FEU won the rebound battle, 46-35, while limiting Ateneo to a 24-of-64 clip, including 1-of-14 from three-point range.
“We really didn’t shoot the ball well from the outside but we did play hard and I’m happy with that. We just have to do a better job off the boards next time,” Black said.
He also cited the below par performance of Eric Salamat, who managed only six points with the veteran guard unable to finish the game after sustaining a knee injury in the closing minutes.
In contrast, Garcia played superb for FEU, firing four triples and matching his career-high output while dishing out three assists and two shot blocks.
Cervantes and Aldrech Ramos added 13 and 10, respectively, for the Tams.
Nico Salva led the Blue Eagles with 14 markers, 12 in the second half.
Earlier, Adamson finally broke its opening-game slump as the Falcons beat National U, 60-54, in a big start in their title drive.
Eric Camson posted double-double outputs of 13 points – matching his previous career high – and 10 rebounds to help power the Falcons to the win, their first season-opener victory since their 116-103 rout of the National U Bulldogs on July 10, 2005.
“The boys are very motivated to win our first game (of the season) because of the tremendous support from the Adamson community,” said Adamson coach Leo Austria, whose crew also spoiled the debut of NU mentor Eric Gonzales.
After helping Adamson to a 49-42 lead via a 10-4 run in the third quarter, Camson combined with Roider Cabrera and Lester Alvarez in another 7-2 roll as the San Marcelino-based cagers posted a 12-point cushion entering the last five minutes of the contest.
Janus Lozada and Jan Colina chipped in 11 markers apiece for Adamson, which likewise benefited from 31 turnovers committed by the Bulldogs.