Zavier Lucero chopped down the biggest man on the floor on Sunday night and put University of the Philippines (UP) in a position to validate a UAAP title won last season in the tightest of ways.
Lucero smothered an Ange Kouame short stab in the waning seconds that sealed the Maroons’ 72-66 nipping of Ateneo in Game 1 of the UAAP Season 85 Finals in front of a mix of 18,211 screaming fans clad in blue and maroon at Mall of Asia Arena.
After that, Lucero was workmanlike in announcing what needs to be done next, just like how he was when the pressure was at numbing point in the series-opener.
“It’s great, but honestly there is another one (game to be won) ahead of us,” said Lucero, whose block on the 6-foot-10 Kouame underneath with 32 seconds left stifled the last of Ateneo’s fightbacks. “As soon as that buzzer sounded off, we got to move on and focus on preparing for our next game.’’
“That was me in the right place at the right time. It’s a team effort that we showed tonight,’’ added Lucero, who is expecting a sweep by his Maroons this time.
Lucero stood out, sure, but he wasn’t alone in doing the heavy lifting.
Harold Alarcon fired two crucial threes—the first one igniting a big run by UP midway in the fourth that the defending champions protected the rest of the way. Another triple put them ahead by 10 again.
JD Cagulangan and Cyril Gonzales likewise contributed in making life difficult for the Eagles, like presumptive season Most Valuable Player (MVP) Malick Diouf as the Maroons moved closer to retaining the title they captured in three games last season also over Ateneo.
“This is it for this season, there’s nothing left to do but to leave it on the floor. I’m glad that we all came together as one and did our best,’’ said Lucero, who finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds on top of his two important blocks.
“We hope to put this away with a good margin. If we can avoid any heroics [like in last season’s Game 3] that will be nice. But whether it’s close or not, we’ll be ready for that. We got to be poised and calm in that challenge and be able to come out on top no matter what,” Lucero said.
“This is a great opportunity [having a chance to sweep], so we have to seize it.’’
Cagulangan, last season’s Game 3 hero, iced the win with a pair of freebies for UP, which is seeking to write history as the only team to win two championships in a single year.
The Maroons came out firing on all cylinders right in the first half as the No. 1 fast-breaking team this season forged ahead early with a double-digit advantage anchored on the efforts of Gonzales, Alarcon and Cagulangan.
They managed to bump up that lead with solid contributions off the bench aside from efficiently running breaks and transforming Ateneo’s costly errors to precious buckets.
Forthsky Padrigao’s floater, an open three by Dave Ildefonso and another long triple by Padrigao over the outstretched arms of Lucero pulled the Eagles within five.
A great setback for Ateneo was when Padrigao headed to the bench after hurting his right foot with 3:21 left in the third frame.
He had scored 16 points that kept the Blue Eagles in the fight, but was only able to return for just a few seconds early in the fourth.
Meanwhile, the Lady Bulldogs of National University (NU) earlier earned the shot to extend the longest dynasty in the league after winning their seventh straight women’s basketball crown at the expense of La Salle Lady Archers.
A 76-64 win gave the Lady Bulldogs a sweep of their best-of-three series and erased the bitter taste of their only loss in ages which, the Lady Archers dealt them more than a month ago and snapped a 106-game winning streak.
That was what awakened the sleeping giants as the Lady Bulldogs never gave the Lady Archers a chance, racing to an early 23-point lead that was never in danger of being overhauled as rookie Tin Cayabyab scored 14 of her 18 points in the first half to lead the assault.
“One of the things that we won’t forget this season was losing to La Salle,” the rookie Cayabyab, who was adjudged as the Finals MVP, said in Filipino. “[That loss] helped us win this championship. It brought us together because we had realizations of the things we needed to do.”
NU tied University of the Philippines as the third-winningest women’s team with its seven crowns, just behind University of Santo Tomas and Far Eastern, who have 11 each.
More importantly, only the 1965-1971 University of the East men’s team led by the enigmatic Sonny Jaworski is the only team in league history with as many straight titles, something that the Lady Bulldogs can take aim at next season. INQ
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