The National University Bulldogs took all the blows, trash talk, and combination plays that the Far Eastern University Tamaraws had, and survived by the skin of their teeth.
National University booked their fifth straight Finals ticket in a five-set classic, 23-25, 25-20, 15-25, 25-21, 15-12 at the FilOil Flying V Centre.
Overcoming 41 errors, National U needed every bit of Bryan Bagunas’ playoff career-high 23 points and Fauzi Ismail’s resurgent 18-point performance to quell the Tamaraws’ barrage.
Both squads traded momentum and set wins in the first two frames. The Tamaraws survived a tight first set and came away with the early lead thanks to clutch conversions from veterans Greg Dolor and Richard Solis. The second set belonged to NU once Madz Gampong and Ancheta came off the bench and led a 5-0 run that gave NU the lead permanently, 22-18.
The third set saw a deflated National U give up errors and a 6-15 gap to FEU. The Bulldogs tried to come back, trimming the deficit down to four, 14-18, but their errors kept flowing and eventually pushed FEU to a 2-1 sets lead.
FEU seemed on their way back to the Finals after taking a 20-16 lead in the fourth set. Down and frustrated, the Bulldogs needed to rally around each other to not let their season go to waste.
“‘Yun nga na-frustrate kami, tapos nagsimula kami magkanya-kanya. Buti na lang nakabawi sila. Talagang pinakita nila na hindi sila susuko,” said NU head coach Dante Alinsunurin.
Thanks to steady floor defense from Ismail and offense from Bagunas, the Bulldogs rallied back and scores seven straight points to force a decider.
NU powered ahead in the fifth set, taking an 11-7 lead after an FEU error. The Tamaraws had one more run in them, taking the next four points after NU’s reception collapsed momentarily. But that was all FEU could do, as NU broke away permanently, 14-11, following a long rally capped by Bryan Bagunas. The FEU sophomore served his team out of the season, as his floater sailed long.
“Nagkaisa kami. ‘Yung habol po namin para talaga ‘yun sa mga coaches namin na walang sawa kami tinuruan at para sa lahat ng sinakripisyo namin para makaabot dito,” Bagunas added.
The Bulldogs will play the Ateneo De Manila University Blue Eagles in a best-of-three series starting on Tuesday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum. The two have met in the past three Finals, with Ateneo taking the last two championships.
In their final UAAP matches Greg Dolor managed 13, while Ronchette Villegas tossed 37 excellent sets with two points.
The Tamaraws have made the Final Four after missing the past two post-seasons.
NU (3) – Bagunas 23, Ismail 18, Malabunga 10, Gampong 6, Saura 6, Natividad 5, Dayandante 2, Ancheta 1, Baysac 0, Marcos (L)
FEU (2) – Solis 15, Paler 14, Dolor 13, Garcia 10, Bugaoan 6, Villegas 2, Camcam 1, Quiel 1, Bautista 0, Salabsab 0, Silang 0, Suarez 0, Marmeto (L)