MANILA, September 1, 2003 (STAR) By Joey Villar  - Ateneo struggled again but this time came through with crucial plays down the stretch as it edged University of the Philippines, 56-53, yesterday to clinch the first Final Four slot in the 66th UAAP basketball tournament at the Blue Eagle Gym.

Wesley Gonzales stepped up in the fourth quarter and buried three triples in the period that gave the Eagles enough cushion to thwart the rallying Maroons and match their number of wins last season.

With a 9-3 slate, the defending champions formalized their stint in the Final Four, their fifth in the same number of years.

The victory also atoned for the teamís humiliating 62-76 loss to National University last Thursday in a game where the Eagles were held to just two points in the third quarter.

But while Ateneo recovered, arch rival De La Salle continued to flounder as it bowed to National U, 59-80, in the other varsity game.

Ronnie Cajayon, Rey Mendoza and Froilan Baguio stood at the forefront of the Bulldogs attack, scoring 51 points among themselves as National U completed the victory 10 days after humiliating the Eagles.

After missing his teamís last game due to a broken nose, Larry Fonacier returned wearing a mask and chipped in six points while grabbing six rebounds, dishing off three assists and making a steal.

"Heís still out of sync but Iíd rather have him there knowing that he is ready to play because he gives us a lot of opportunities and flexibility," Ateneo coach Joel Banal said.

Riding the crest of a 80-70 stunning of La Salle, UP had another opportunity for an upset after Robson Bornancin drove in a lay-up that gave it a 44-42 lead with less than six and a half minutes to go.

But UP mentor Lito Vergara rested the Brazilian forward and forget about him the rest of the way that led to a ninth loss in 11 games for the Maroons.

The Maroons had one more chance to force overtime or steal the win but rookie Marvin Cruz, who drained a triple earlier, attempted a three-pointer that hit nothing but air with four seconds to go.

Macky Escalona muffed the back end of his two charities with 2.7 seconds remaining but the Maroons could get a decent attempt as the final buzzer sounded.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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