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Maroons Secure Third Straight UAAP Finals Spot by Defeating Eagles

For the third straight season, the University of the Philippines (UP) will have a shot at the UAAP crown. This time, the Maroons rid themselves of a familiar Finals thorn.

UP ended Ateneo’s reign as champion, with Francis Lopez delivering daggers down the stretch of a 57-46 victory on Saturday in the Season 86 men’s basketball Final Four at Smart Araneta Coliseum.

“We’re just gonna continue to fight and fight until we get what we want which is the championship,” said the rookie Lopez after chipping in 12 points and 10 rebounds.

The Maroons, champions after beating Ateneo two seasons ago before losing the title to the Eagles last season, will face La Salle in the Finals, after the Green Archers held off National U, 97-73, in the other game.

Mark Nonoy spearheaded a spirited second-quarter by the Green Archers, who ran their way to a 45-36 lead at the break and then tore the game wide open in the third to set up the first UP-La Salle title showdown in the UAAP.

Nonoy finished with 20 points to lead the Archers while Kevin Quiambao, the leading Most Valuable Player candidate, added 17.

Ateneo’s title defense looked good for two quarters of a low-scoring game, with the Eagles up three at the half.

“Both teams fought, the score says it all,” said UP assistant coach Christian Luanzon. “The first half [score] was 25-22 (Ateneo lead), that’s a one quarter score. Both teams came prepared, especially on the defensive end.”

“Both teams also struggled offensively. [The Maroons] got it going in the third quarter, but more than that, they just fought hard and didn’t let go until the end. Hats off to all the players,” Luanzon added as UP ended Ateneo’s consecutive Finals appearance at six, dating back to Season 79 in 2016.

UP and Ateneo split their elimination matchups with the defending champions outlasting UP, 99-89, in their first meeting. The Maroons got back against the Blue Eagles with a 65-60 triumph in the second round.

The Blue Eagles’ last lead evaporated after a Sean Torculas triple gave UP a 36-34 lead in the third quarter. Gerry Abadiano and Janjan Felicilda helped the Maroons stretch that advantage to 51-42.

UP fed that cushion with a 15-9 scoring run in the payoff period and the Eagles had no answer in the stretch.

‘Very downcast players’

“UP was a better team today,” said Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin.

“UP was a better team this season [and] they will go on and contest the finals. But for us, we really believe that we [could] win this game and [because of] not winning it, there’s a lot of emotion in the dugout, there’s a lot of very downcast players, they’re hurt. And they’re really feeling the pain. And you don’t feel that if you haven’t invested,” he added.

Malick Diouf finished with 12 points, 16 rebounds, three steals and three blocks for UP, but the reigning Most Valuable Player credited the rest of the team for the win.

“It’s a team effort, not only me, everybody was working hard and we prepared well for Ateneo and I am really happy right now,” Diouf said.

The Maroons certainly needed all hands on deck defensively as they held the Eagles to under 50 points.

“If there is one word to describe the way coach Tab has designed [Ateneo’s] culture offensively, it’s fluid. [The Blue Eagles] always seem to find the best shot available,” Luanzon went on. “We never underestimated the capability of [Ateneo] because they’ve been champions for how many seasons already under coach Tab.

“That’s what we emphasized, try not to give Ateneo clean looks at the basket. That was key for us [with] everybody being in sync all throughout the four quarters.”

UP had an overwhelming 60-43 advantage on rebounds, including 20 from the offensive glass.

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Coaches talk about consistency and I believe from a defensive standpoint this is probably the most consistent fourth quarter game of us. Couldn’t have come at a better time,” Luanzon said.