Tamaraws still winningest, subdue Tigers for 20th crown

Olmin Leyba - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Far Eastern University worked better under grinding pressure, brandishing a big heart and keeping its poise to remain the winningest squad by beating scrappy University of Santo Tomas, 67-62, before 23,124 cheering fans at the MOA Arena yesterday.

The Tamaraws controlled the tempo early, running a 10-point lead only to reel from the impact of a 16-point assault by the Growling Tigers in the third period then called on the most seasoned among the Tamaraws to secure the win that gave FEU the most number of titles in the league’s centerpiece men’s basketball with their 20th.

It was a storied win for the Tams, who finally overcame the trauma of losing to National U last year after taking the opener, finishing strong and watching the Tigers wither in gut-wrenching endgame of the sudden death.

Veteran Mac Belo, who was named MVP at the end of the playoff after firing a game-high 23 points and hauling down eight rebounds in 24 minutes, went all-out offensively and defensively and was bodily carried out off the court with a leg injury moments after personally ensuring the victory for the Tams in the dying seconds of the contest.

The Growling Tigers struggled under the Tams’ resolute defense and had to rely on Ed Daquioag’s second half heroics as Kevin Ferrer was nowhere to be found on a night the Tigers’ needed him most following a 29-point burst in Game Two Saturday.

There was a sense of deja vu from last year’s finals fold-up when the Tams fell behind 53-59 going to the last 4:25 after posting a 10-point margin. But the FEU cagers, starring Belo, Roger Pogoy and Mike Tolomia, rose to the occasion and countered with a telling 14-3 windup to finish the job as FEU fans and supporters erupted in wild celebration.

“Andun yung pressure pero nag-usap kami, effort lang at ayun, nakabalik kami (We felt the pressure but we stayed together and put up the effort, And it paid off,” said Belo, who also went home with the Finals MVP plum.

The 6-foot-4 Belo also alternated with Pogoy and Ron Dennison in shackling Ferrer. The Tams held Ferrer to six markers on a 2-of-7 shooting, a far cry from his previous output that lifted UST to a series-tying 62-56 win.

Pogoy added 14, making half of them in the critical stage of final canto, while Tolomia rebounded from a mediocre performance in the previous match and shot 13, nailing a runaway layup and a spilt that gave the Tams a 64-62 cushion with 46.1 seconds left.

Belo made a foul throw then forced Ed Daquioag to miss a layup in the ensuing play, leading to insurance charities from Russel Escoto.

“When we were down in the endgame, the players kept on fighting, they kept on believing they could pull through,” said FEU coach Nash Racela.

It was sweet redemption for the Tams, who blew a 1-0 lead in losing their title duel with NU Bulldogs last season.

“Somebody called it redemption but to me it’s a breakthrough sa basketball program ng FEU. A lot of people were doubting FEU, each year, they were saying something bad about the players. I think it just showed it’s not true. I’m proud of the players, they represented the school well,” said Racela.

FEU also broke a 10-year title drought.

Daquioag topscored for UST with 21 points as the España-based squad settled for the silver for the third time in four years.

“Hindi kami naka-execute nung endgame (We couldn’t execute well in the end game),” rued UST’s second-year mentor Bong dela Cruz, who personally scored a redemption of sorts after bouncing back from a missed Final Four stint last season.

“After the game, sinabi ko sa players it was a very good season. Wala namang nag-expect na aabot tayo ng finals, much less Final Four,” he stressed.

Both FEU and UST will lose key players to graduation after this battle for supremacy. Belo, Pogoy, Tolomia, Russel Escoto, Francis Tamsi, and Achie Iñigo played their last games for the Tams while the Tigers’ starting five – Ferrer, Daquioag, Karim Abdul, Louie Vigil, and Janjan Sheriff – had all taken their final bows.


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