What went on their first two encounters this season?

The UST Growling Tigers swept the UP Fighting Maroons in the elimination round.

On the second game day of the current campaign, the Growling Tigers pulled-off a stunning “upset” versus the UAAP Season 81 runners-up, 85-69. It was a statement victory for both UST and head coach Aldin Ayo as they reintroduced themselves to the league. After finishing with a dismal 5-9 win-loss record the year before, nobody expected the España-based squad to cruise past a revamped Fighting Maroons. UP was held scoreless in the last four minutes of the match which ultimately led to their doom.

Mark Nonoy, who was recently named UAAP Season 82 Rookie of the Year, bounced back from a discouraging seniors debut (4 points on 1/12 FG shooting against the UE Red Warriors) to help UST claim its second win in as many games. He finished the game with 16 points, five rebounds, and two assists. The Fighting Maroons, meanwhile, were led by UAAP Season 81 Most Valuable Player Bright Akhuetie as he notched a double-double with 19 points and 16 rebounds. The Nigerian big man also added three assists, one steal, and one block in the losing effort. UP’s highly-touted recruit, Kobe Paras, missed the game because of an injury.

The second meeting between these two teams was a thriller as the Growling Tigers escaped with an 84-78 triumph over the Fighting Maroons. Renzo Subido and Brent Paraiso drained a three-pointer each in the last minute to give UST the lead after trailing by two points. They sealed the victory after a missed three-point attempt by Paras and two made free throws by Soulemane Chabi Yo. Despite the endgame heroics of the three Growling Tigers, it was actually Sherwin Concepcion who led UST in the scoring department as he tallied 16 points off the bench, while shooting 50% (!!!) beyond the arc. Rhenz Abando, the other super rookie of UST, sat out as he battled with an off-court controversy. 

Paras, who overcame a shoulder injury in the second quarter, registered a game-high 18 points on 36.9 field goal shooting. He also added five rebounds, two assists, and two blocks in his statline. Javi Gomez De Liaño chipped in with 11 points off the bench, but it was not enough to prevent the loss.

Who will be the key players of the Final Four match?

UST: Soulemane Chabi Yo and Renzo Subido

Aside from Nonoy, another Growling Tiger will receive an individual accolade this season. Chabi Yo bagged the Most Valuable Player award after garnering 76 statistical points and averaging 16.9 points, 14.7 rebounds, and 1.3 assists. The Beninese big man has been killing it on the offensive end – especially inside the shaded area – but he has also made his presence felt on the defensive end. He’ll be Ayo’s most crucial player coming into this do-or-die showdown.

Second on the list is the graduating point guard of UST, Subido. In the two elimination round games that he played against UP this season, the former De La Salle Zobel standout averaged 13 points, four rebounds, and four assists, while shooting 50% from the field. Subido’s outside stroke was also present as he was able to knock-down half of his attempts from the three-point territory.

Nonoy might be the Growling Tigers’ next star point guard, but the present still belongs to Subido. Expect him to share the touches in the clutch with Chabi Yo and Abando.

UP: Bright Akhuetie and Jun Manzo

After his explosive outing against UST in the first round, the Growling Tigers successfully limited Akhuetie’s scoring (10 points) and touches (5/8 FGs) the following encounter. They also forced him to commit six turnovers. Despite this blip, last season’s MVP will still be a massive player for UP head coach Bo Perasol because he’ll be the team’s best match-up against Chabi Yo. Their head-to-head clash might just be the key in whichever team comes out on top.

Unlike Subido, the Fighting Maroons’ own graduating point guard is not expected to constantly put up points on the board. Majority of UP’s scoring load has been shared between Paras and Akhuetie, thus giving Manzo the opportunity to focus on finding the sweet spots of his teammates.

The Cebuano has served as a valuable extension for Perasol on the court this season because of his ability to dictate the offense well and be the team’s de facto leader. 

Who will be the X-Factors in the game?

UST: Brent Paraiso and CJ Cansino

A few years ago, Paraiso was warming the bench for the DLSU Green Archers. Fast-forward to today, he finally landed a bigger role under Ayo. He has repaid his coach’s trust by draining shots beyond the arc and playing pesky defense. A potential match-up against his good friend, Rivero, will be interesting to watch.

Cansino’s scintillating rookie season was sadly cut short by a nasty Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury last campaign, but he has recovered in time to join the roster this year. The Growling Tigers’ team captain has seen his minutes dip due to load management, which is understandable. 

UST is deep on the wing position as of the moment so clearly, it’s better to not rush Cansino back in the fold. But sometimes, desperate times calls for desperate measures. Any production from Cansino will be a lovely bonus for Ayo and the Growling Tigers.

UP: Juan Gomez De Liaño and Ricci Rivero

Five points on 25% field goal shooting (0.09% 3-PT). That’s the scoring average of Gomez De Liaño in his two games against UST this campaign. An absolutely shocking stat for someone with a huge potential. He has struggled all season long, but has shown flashes of brilliance in some games. The streaky guard needs to improve immediately if he wants a return trip to the Finals.

Just like the Growling Tigers, UP also has a former Lasallian on this list. Rivero is probably the most interesting wildcard of the bunch as he boasts an already accomplished CV in his collegiate career. The high-flying guard won a championship while playing for the Green-and-White and was even part of the Gilas Pilipinas pool while serving his residency for the Fighting Maroons.

Much is expected from Rivero, but his performances this season have been sub-par so far (except those highlight dunks of course). It’s really important for Rivero to find his shots early in the game because once he’s in the groove, it’ll be difficult for any defender to stay in front of him. He can also get the crowd off their feet, which will be big as it can energize the entire UP community (both the fans and the team).

What are the key stats to look at this game?

UST: 3-PT shooting and offensive rebounds

The three-point shot has been UST’s bread and butter this season. This was clearly shown in their second round encounter against UP as they jacked up 42 three-point attempts. If they stick to this gameplan, then it’s critical for the Growling Tigers to crash the glass.

Grabbing the offensive boards will obviously allow them to reset the shot clock and have another attempt, but the key here is not allowing the Fighting Maroons to gobble up the defensive rounds. This will result in a quick fastbreak opportunity, which will be favorable for the Fighting Maroons squad (see: Paras and Rivero. Yikes!)

UP: Turnovers and free throw shooting

The Growling Tigers only committed 24 turnovers in their two elimination round games against the UP. The Fighting Maroons, meanwhile, had 33 turnovers – a colossal +9 difference. Whether it’s because of the Mayhem system of Ayo or just unforced errors, they have to be extra careful with the ball and limit their mistakes.

And since the Fighting Maroons have struggled with their three-point shot against their Final Four opponents this campaign (16/66 through two games), they must make sure to offset that by knocking down their free throws.

Who will advance in the step-ladder?

In terms of postseason experience, the Fighting Maroons definitely have the upper hand. They have retained most of their players (and coaching staff) from last season’s Cinderella run and added exceptional players to an already decent squad. 

The new additions have started to gel with the holdovers so chemistry won’t be an issue. The real problem with this team is consistency. The talent is undeniable, but they have to play good solid basketball for the entire 40 minutes and not just during crunch time. If they can get over this hurdle, then the dream of bringing the men’s basketball trophy back to Diliman will be a reality soon.

UST, on the other hand, have endured a troublesome spell in the bottom half of the standings after reaching the Finals back in Season 78. The only remnants of that team are Subido and Zach Huwag as Marvin Lee decided to forego his fifth and final playing year in the UAAP months before Season 82 even started. But they do have a champion coach in Ayo. The burly mentor steered the DLSU Green Archers (Paraiso was part of the squad) to two consecutive Finals appearances back in 2016 and 2017 before switching schools in 2018.

Despite their disadvantage in terms of Playoff experience, the Growling Tigers have shown that they can go toe-to-toe against any team in the league with their grit and determination. The España-based squad pushed the defending champions ADMU Blue Eagles to the limit in their first round encounter, demolished UP in the same round, and held off a streaking FEU Tamaraws in their previous (do-or-die) game. 

Now with momentum on their side, it won’t be a surprise if the Growling Tigers live for at least another day… or even go all the way to the championship round and make some noise.