FEU coach Olsen Racela couldn't be prouder of what the Tamaraws accomplished on Wednesday.
Through sheer determination and focus, his team is headed to the Final Four after edging the De La Salle Green Archers, 71-70, in a grueling playoff game.
"I love how this team battled through adversity the whole year," Racela beamed.
It wasn't too long ago that the Tamaraws were in a rut. They were sitting on a 5-6 record and in the midst of a four-game losing streak, searching for answers as their postseason hopes were slowly slipping away.
"They never gave up, even during our four-game losing streak, and they were the ones who really gave me confidence," Racela said in Filipino. "Maybe it's just fitting that we made the Final Four this way."
The Tamaraws faced the biggest challenge to their Final Four hopes in the form of the Green Archers. The two teams were tucked away in a back-and-forth battle, each squad refusing to give way to the other. The duel between the Archers and Tamaraws became an instant classic. And just as they done all season long, the Tamaraws dug deep and found a way to win.
"Coach wrote (on the board) before the game, 'One possession at a time,'" graduating guard Axel Iñigo shared. "So we didn't think about if they were ahead or if we were ahead. Our focus was what's in front of us."
FEU was down by four points with roughly a minute left after La Salle point guard Aljun Melecio converted on a circus lay up. The score was 70-66 in favor of La Salle with the momentum swinging their way. Desperately needing a basket on the other end, Jasper Parker drove baseline as his teammate Kenneth Tuffin slid towards the 3-point line. The defense converged on Parker and the point guard dished to Tuffin at the very last moment to knock down the wide-open jumper. Even though Tuffin was stepping on the line, the lead was cut to two points, 70-68, with less than 40 seconds remaining.
"Actually, it wasn't a play, it was just kinda, JR (Parker) was gonna go for a lay-up and then he saw me curl and it just so happened that I was open," relayed Tuffin.
After La Salle failed to hit a basket, Arvin Tolentino knocked down the biggest shot of his young career to give FEU the lead for good. "We've been preparing for this game," Tolentino said. "That's where all our sacrifice and hard work went."
"I'm amazed. It was all them. I mean, those shots did not come off timeouts," Racela said on those crucial makes.
Through Parker's play-making, Tuffin and Tolentino's clutch baskets, and team defense, the Tamaraws barged their way to a hard-fought victory. But the win also belonged not only to FEU's stars but to its role players as well.
Barkley Eboña, who was filling in for the foul-plagued Prince Orizu, played the game of his life against the daunting La Salle frontline and grabbed 16 rebounds, 10 from the offensive glass.
"I just thought that there's no more tomorrow so I'm giving it my all," the soft-spoken Eboña said in Filipino. "Whatever happens, I have no control over that. At the end of the day, at least I have no regrets."
"He just typifies the 'Be Brave' spirit of FEU. The way he goes for those rebounds, the way he defends. Ten offensive rebounds? What heart by the kid," Racela said proudly, also mentioning that Eboña suffered cramps late in the ball game.
It was a valiant team effort for the Tamaraws through and through. Just when everybody thought they were out of the Final Four picture, they end the regular season with four straight wins, including the playoff victory, to make the cut.
"We've been working for this for nine, ten months. And we didn't want it to go to waste. The odds are being stacked against us, the four-game losing streak, and we said never give up," Tuffin said. "On Twitter and social media, we say, 'Don't count us out.' And we believe in that, and that's why other people should believe in us too. We practice that."
The Tamaraws will face the top-seeded and defending champions Ateneo Blue Eagles in the Final Four, and they know the odds are not in their favor once again. But just as they've done throughout the year, they'll continue to believe in themselves and rely on each other.