AND THEN THERE WERE FOUR.

The road to the Final Four has not been easy, as the last game of the elimination round still held a lot of water in who makes it to the semifinal round of the UAAP season 81. We have seen upsets, statement wins, blowouts, and wire-to-wire games in the process, and it has all been exciting. We have seen super rookies show their immense potential, and seniors closing their careers with a bang.

Now, only four schools remain. Before the festivities start, let us take a sneak peek at the key stats and players of each team, as well as some storylines heading to the Final Four.

1. ATENEO BLUE EAGLES (12-2)

HOW WAS THEIR JOURNEY TO THE FINAL FOUR?

There was a lot of hype surrounding the defending champions heading into the opening game of the season. After all, the Blue Eagles won three major preseason championships and represented the Philippines in the Jones Cup. Most pundits and opposing head coaches predicted that Ateneo will not lose a single game in the elimination round. However, their first round proved that anything can happen in the UAAP, as losses against the Adamson Soaring Falcons and FEU Tamaraws bookended their campaign. What’s worse is that Matt and Mike Nieto, the starting point guard and the captain, went down at the end of the first round with the bout of dengue, and rendered them unavailable for most of the second round. The “next man up” mentality caught on however, and the Blue Eagles displayed their deadly form that ultimately swept the second round. Ateneo got revenge against their first round tormentors, as well as clinching a semifinal spot and twice-to-beat advantage in the process.

ONE GAME TO SUMMARIZE THE SEASON: vs UP, second round

In this game, the Fighting Maroons were keeping in step with the Blue Eagles, and even led in certain stretches , then Ateneo flipped the switch. In a snap of a finger, the Blue Eagles erected a 20-point lead that UP would not recover from. Just like in this game, there were glaring problems in the first half, particularly the offense of the team. But once  Ateneo got going, they are virtually unstoppable. This was also the first full game without Matt Nieto, and it displayed the modularity of the system, with the first off the bench being just as effective.

KEY STAT

The Ateneo Blue Eagles have been searching for their identity since their two losses, and it showed in all their wins. They are a disciplined defensive team which will slowly pound teams to submission, allowing their opponents to score only 61.9 points per game, good for a 80.46 defensive rating. The defense is disciplined and calculated, rarely do they gamble on steals. They are no slouch on the offensive end however, as Ateneo pours on 78.8 points per game (second in the league), with a 102.48 offensive rating (league leader). This gives Ateneo a net rating of  22.02. It is dominance on both ends of the floor, and can put you in huge holes if you let them.

KEY PLAYER

It is too easy and obvious to say that Ange Kouame and Thirdy Ravena are the cornerstones of the Ateneo system. They are beasts on the offensive and defensive end, and integral parts of the 12 wins in the regular season. However, I believe that Isaac Go will be the key piece to the success of the Blue Eagles. The clutch center may have set the fans’ expectations high last season, so his dip in numbers (5.3 points, 4.7 rebounds) may have underwhelmed many. Kouame’s presence in the middle is a big factor, lessening the load on Go. Leaning out also has an effect, as his lighter frame allowed him to change his style of play and have less stability in his jump shots, something that he specialized in last season. The fans must not forget however that Isaac Go has been the savior for Ateneo in the past two Final Four series. Expect the fourth-year big man to come up big in the semifinals.

THE STORYLINE

Since Tab Baldwin took over for Bo Perasol in season 79, Ateneo needed their twice-to-beat advantage badly. Both first games were lost decisively, seemingly getting the Blue Eagles caught with their collective pants down. In both games, they were out hustled by the FEU Tamaraws, allowing Raymar Jose (season 79) and Arvin Tolentino (season 80) to stamp their class on their opponents.

The rubber match for both seasons were no walk in the park either, as Ateneo cannot put their opponents away. Both games were neck and neck from the opening buzzer, until the end. The games needed an extra five minutes to settle the score. Isaac Go was the knight the Blue Eagles needed in both seasons. He came back in the game after being hit on the nose and bleeding profusely in season 79, hitting a putback to give Ateneo the lead, and tipping a crosscourt pass to Monbert Arong in the dying seconds to put the game away. In season 80, he drained a game-tying three and defended Arvin Tolentino’s last gasp in regulation, and hit a dagger KNEELING shot that would make Saint Ignatius smile in overtime.

With the Ateneo Blue Eagles seeming to get their bearings and display their prime form in the second round, can they finally stamp their class on their opponents and enter the finals in one game?

2. ADAMSON SOARING FALCONS (10-4)

HOW WAS THEIR JOURNEY TO THE FINAL FOUR?

The Adamson Soaring Falcons were tagged as dark horses coming into the season. They were strong, but teams like Ateneo, FEU, and to some extent UP were ranked on top of them. This put a huge chip on their shoulders, beating the highly touted Ateneo Blue Eagles in their season opener and zooming to a 5-0 start. The then-undefeated Falcons were far from invincible however, as they had to earn every win they acquired. The wire-to-wire games eventually caught up with them, as the FEU Tamaraws and DLSU Green Archers handed them two straight losses at the end of the first round, both overtime thrillers. In the second round, the same trend continued. The UP Fighting Maroons trimmed the 19 point lead of the Soaring Falcons to four before a Manganti dagger to seal the game. The UST Growling Tigers was leading at the half until Adamson uncorked a 15-0 run in the third quarter for them to win. They fell against the Ateneo Blue Eagles through a mixture of tough defense and missed shots. Adamson clinched the Final Four spot and twice-to-beat advantage after bucking an early 20-3 lead in the first quarter against the UE Red Warriors.

ONE GAME TO SUMMARIZE THE SEASON: vs Ateneo, first round

The Adamson Soaring Falcons beat the defending champions in shocking fashion back in the season opener weekend of UAAP Season 81. This set the tone for the Franz Pumaren-mentored squad, as they racked up four straight after that. The Soaring Falcons were down by 10 at one point towards the end of the first half, then went on an 11-0 tear through a combination of forcing turnovers and easy baskets. Ateneo kept the game close but key defensive stops and a dagger by Papi Sarr put Adamson on top. It was the Pumaren press at its deadliest form, and it is still effective in 2018.

KEY STAT

Every Filipino basketball fan knows about the Pumaren family, and that their preferred weapon is the full-court press. It is a high risk, high reward defensive system, double-teaming the primary ballhandler to force turnovers and convert easy baskets off it. The Adamson team is built for the system, as they force 18.3 turnovers per game, second in the league. Taking the ball away is their bread and butter, and they will live and die by the Pumaren press.

KEY PLAYER

Papi Sarr is the most important piece to the Soaring Falcons’ Finals bid. If you look at the lineup of both Adamson and UP, one would say that they are almost evenly matched. Outside snipers? Check. Long defenders? Got ’em. Steady point guards? Of course. Hulking centers? Yes, but Bright Akhuetie is arguably better. The graduating foreign student-athlete needs to contain the leading MVP candidate, and scoring points would just be a nice bonus. Sarr also needs to be at prime rim protection mode as the Fighting Maroons have Manzo, Desiderio, and the GDL brothers who can attack the rim with efficiency. Lucky for him and Adamson, UP is not so deep in the center position, so when Jerson Prado or Will Gozum comes in to substitute for Akhuetie, Papi Sarr can rest and Coach Franz can bring Kristian Bernardo or Keith Zaldivar in.

THE STORYLINE

They weren’t supposed to be this good. This has been on the mind of every UAAP fan ever since Franz Pumaren took over coaching duties in season 79. The Soaring Falcons improved on a yearly basis, as they made the final four as the fourth seed in season 79, and the third seed in season 80. In these two seasons, they faced a loaded La Salle Green Archers who ultimately succumbed to the Aldin Ayo coached squad. The season 80 loss left a bad taste in the mouth of the Soaring Falcons, as the controversial game led to the referees of the match being suspended for the remainder of the season. This was not without merit, though, as Adamson was leading for most of the game and only lost the game in the fourth quarter.

The Soaring Falcons finally clinched the second seed with a twice-to-beat advantage this season. Despite losing deadeye point guard Rob Manalang (graduation) and promising rookies Tyrus Hill and Kurt Lojera (transfer), the team quickly rebuilt. Vince Magbuhos, Jerom Lastimosa, and Jed Colonia contributed immediately to the Pumaren system despite being rookies. Role players Simon Camacho and Jonathan Espeleta stepped up their game this season, and team leaders Jerrick Ahanmisi and Sean Manganti were out for blood. Coincidentally, this is also the third year of Franz Pumaren, and he did promise that he will bring a title to San Marcelino in three years.

Will the Adamson Soaring Falcons get over the hump, and be two games closer to their coach’s promise?

3. UP FIGHTING MAROONS (8-6)

HOW WAS THEIR JOURNEY TO THE FINAL FOUR?

Things were bright (pun intended) in Diliman prior to the start of the season as perennial NCAA MVP candidate Bright Akhuetie joined their fold. Paul Desiderio chose to stay for his last playing year. Jun Manzo and Juan Gomez de Liano were also seasoned after a year of playing for the Fighting Maroons. UP started their campaign strong, blowing out the UE Red Warriors in their season opener. They also clinched wins against the NU Bulldogs and DLSU Green Archers. The first round was not kind to them, however, as they lost to the defending champions Ateneo despite a 29-point outburst from Juan GDL. A loaded FEU Tamaraws also overpowered UP. The Fighting Maroons kept in step against Adamson all game long and even led in the dying seconds until Sean Manganti wiped the collective smiles of the team and crowd off their faces. The Fighting Maroons hit their lowest point after a shellacking from a rookie-laden UST Growling Tigers team without Steve Akomo. At 3-4, their Final Four hopes were in peril. Good thing for UP, they started getting their groove in the second round. They would only lose two games (Ateneo, Adamson), and would win the rest of their games in convincing fashion. The Fighting Maroons would get their revenge on an FEU  and UST, swept UE, NU, and DLSU. That win against La Salle was the most notable as in the most crucial game in 14 years, the Fighting Maroons stepped on the gas and never looked back winning 97-81 and getting the highest quotient to book them to the semifinals as the third seed.

ONE GAME TO SUMMARIZE THE SEASON: vs DLSU, first round

This is an almost perfect representation of the UP Fighting Maroons’ season. The outcome was uncertain during the first few minutes of the game until there was a degree of separation against the Green Archers thanks to a 10-0 run in the third quarter. La Salle had a 13-0 counter run that slashed the lead to one in the fourth quarter. Composure and execution prevailed, as UP managed to seal the game and ultimately get the W.

KEY STAT

As soon as Dolreich “Bo” Perasol took over the UP Fighting Maroons program, the words “iso ball” were thrown a lot. Give the ball to the primary scorer, dribble a lot, wait for a screen, and shoot before time runs out. This season, however, it was a totally different ballgame. Ball movement has been a prime weapon in their system, setting various picks to get shooters in their positions or free up driving lanes for slashers. The Fighting Maroons lead the UAAP in assists, registering 19.9 dimes a game. Along with a league-leading 79.37 pace, this translates to UP scoring the most points per game along with the second-best offensive rating this season (80.3ppg, 101.16 ORTG). They need it now more than ever, as they are facing the suffocating Pumaren press.

KEY PLAYER

David Murrell will start in place of Juan Gomez de Liano to give the second unit an added punch on offense. Murrell’s role will not be to replace the offensive output lost, however. His job all game is to cover Adamson’s number one scoring option, Jerrick Ahanmisi. Ahanmisi is an elite shooter who can take and make a long bomb if you give him enough space. The rookie Fil-Canadian forward is long, agile, and can fight through screens set by the Adamson big men. He needs to be the defensive anchor all game long, and getting points would just be a bonus for the Fighting Maroons.

THE STORYLINE

ATIN ‘TO, PAPASOK ‘TO. These were the words shouted by UP’s heart and soul Paul Desiderio during their season opener against the UST Growling Tigers in season 80. Little did the UP community know, this now-immortal line of the Fighting Maroons captain wasn’t pertaining to just one possession. This would set the tone for their next two seasons.

The University of the Philippines have come a long way. From being the league doormats celebrating a sole win with a bonfire, to becoming a dangerous team that can beat you if you let them. A winning culture had to be established, and it would not happen overnight. Before, the Fighting Maroons would play not to get blown out, shedding the “Fighting” adjective from their monicker seemingly every game. Now, they play to win, no matter who their opponent is. Defearing the then-defending champions DLSU Green Archers in season 80, did a lot to improve their confidence, and aspire for something beyond the elimination round. UP missed the bus to the postseason as with their fate out of their hands, FEU defeated Adamson to clinch the fourth and final seed. This season, they wanted to seal their own fate despite a shaky start. With the Fighting Maroons’ Final Four hopes hanging in the balance, they dismantled a DLSU team who were also fighting to keep their semifinal spot. 21 years of frustration have finally come to an end. Standing in between UP and their first Finals appearance since 1986 are the Adamson Falcons and the man who broke their hearts too many times, Sean Manganti.

Will the UP Fighting Maroons’ dream run continue, or will it come to a screeching halt against a familiar foe?

4. FEU TAMARAWS (8-6)

HOW WAS THEIR JOURNEY TO THE FINAL FOUR?

The FEU Tamaraws were pegged by experts to be the team to stand in the way of the Ateneo Blue Eagles and their back-to-back bid. They defeated DLSU, NU, and UP in convincing fashion. The Tamaraws also handed the Adamson Soaring Falcons their first loss, despite their best player in Arvin Tolentino was thrown out of the playing court due to an inadvertent clothesline to Sean Manganti. Their win against the Ateneo Blue Eagles at the end of the first round defined their system, as despite turning the ball over 27 times, timely threes by Hubert Cani, Jasper Parker, and Brandrey Bienes erased a 10-point Ateneo halftime lead, and win the game. Their losses against UST and UE, however, erased whatever comfort the Tamaraws and their fans had. For one, the Growling Tigers and the Red Warriors were at the bottom of the standings when they lost. It was not also just the fact that they lost, it was the manner of how they lost. It was a masterful offensive game for both teams, and the defense capitalized on FEU’s shots not falling. The Tamaraws finished the first round tied with Ateneo and Adamson with a 5-2 record, good for first in the league due to the superior quotient.

Their fate would soon turn around, as FEU lost four straight games. Losing Arvin Tolentino to suspensions and Prince Orizu to injury was the main factor, as losing their most talented scorer and rim protector was a huge hit to their system. They went back to their winning ways by beating NU, UE, and Adamson, which earned them a knockout game against the DLSU Green Archers.

ONE GAME TO SUMMARIZE THE SEASON: vs Ateneo, first round

The first round matchup against the defending champions is the best game to summarize their season as both teams were neck-and-neck until Ateneo erected a 10 point lead heading into halftime. The league knows that if you let the Blue Eagles take a double-digit lead, the game is pretty much over. Apparently, no one told the Tamaraws that as they clawed back through their bench mob shooting timely threes and denying Ateneo free shots to eke out a narrow win.

KEY STAT

The preseason assessment for FEU is that they have a stacked lineup that can win the title. A player from the bench can come into the game and instantly contribute valuable points. This reflects on the bench production of the team, league leaders at 36.9 points per game. Facing the best defense in the league, the Tamaraws need every point they can get from their bench in order to extend their series to another do-or-die game.

KEY PLAYER

When Arvin Tolentino plays well, the Tamaraws play well. He is essentially their most gifted offensive options, as well as the barometer and spiritual leader of the team. He is the most dangerous player in that team, as he can heat up in an instant. He can use the triple threat to the hilt, making Raffy Verano and the other big men guess what he will do all game long. His natural skill covers for his defense, his true weak point. If he keeps his movements in check and not get himself in trouble, the defending champions are in for a long game.

THE STORYLINE

The FEU Tamaraws have a very rich history of dominance, thanks to their recruiting and development. Through the years, players like Arwind Santos, Jonas Villanueva, Mark Barroca, RR Garcia, and Terrence Romeo have brought honor and Glory to the green and gold. Mac Belo and RR Pogoy won FEU its last championship in season 78, and the team has been perennial contenders ever since.

The problem though is one man: Isaac Go.

FEU clinched the third seed in season 79, against eventual runners-up Ateneo. Composure and experience brought them to a do-or-die game, with Raymar Jose carrying the team on his shoulders. In game two, Monbert Arong was the go-to guy for the Tamaraws, and additional minutes were needed to settle the score. Blue Eagle Isaac Go was hit on the face in overtime, resulting in a bloody nose that greatly depleted the center rotation. He would come back in the game and guarantee a new championship through his clutch putback.

In season 80, the Tamaraws needed to win their last game against Adamson in order to clinch the fourth seed and avoid a playoff game against the UP Fighting Maroons. Their prize for doing so? Facing the 13-1 Ateneo Blue Eagles still smarting from their loss against DLSU, raring to prove themselves. Fortunately for FEU, they managed to outhustle the Blue Eagles, setting another do-or-die game. The Tamaraws were leading by three with 14 seconds to go, but Isaac Go, clutch gene on and everything, sent the game to overtime with a three. It was an all Ateneo show from there, sealed with an Isaac Go dagger to send the eventual champions to the finals for the second straight year.

This season, they were tagged to have an easier time reaching the Final Four. Nobody expected the Tamaraws to play a knockout game for the fourth seed. But they did what was needed, and now they face Ateneo for the fourth straight year.

Will the FEU Tamaraws finally get over the hump, and get to the finals for the first time since 2015?

The stage is set. The storylines are in plays. All that’s left now is to play the game. Enjoy the Final Four, it is sure to be a spectacular one.