[PHOTO AT LEFT - CHAMPS: John Paul Cuan kisses the championship trophy while receiving a loud yell from Dylan Ababou as the UST Growling Tigers celebrate their 76-74 overtime victory over the Ateneo Blue Eagles in Game 3 of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines men’s finals at the Big Dome last night. Photo by JOEY MENDOZA]

MANILA, OCTOBER 3, 2006 (STAR) By Joey Villar - The University of Santo Tomas Tigers lived and died and finally lived for all the glory in the end in a nerve-wracking overtime victory over the Ateneo Eagles, 76-74, completing an amazing journey from near-obscurity to UAAP supremacy.

The Tigers came back from a last-second heartbreaker from Game One with a ferocious stand in Game Two and clinched a record-tying 19th UAAP men’s basketball title as the Blue Eagles misfired two winning plays before a roaring crowd of nearly 20,000 at the Araneta Coliseum.

It was a win that was one for the ages as UST capped its improbable surge from the back of the pack to the top of the heap behind a gritty bunch of Tigers, who survived an atrocious stint at the foul line and hung tough in a pulsating endgame minus their two prolific mainstays.

But Jojo Duncil and Dylan Ababou displayed the heart and spunk of the Tigers when everything was on the line, firing a series of crucial shots in the face of the soaring Eagles’ charge to the finish and keeping UST’s date with destiny alive.

"This should be destiny because no one expected us to be where we are right now," said an ecstatic UST coach Pido Jarencio, who thus became the first coach since Joel Banal steered Ateneo to the 2002 crown to win a UAAP championship in his rookie season. Fritz Gaston was the first rookie mentor to win a UAAP crown in 1988, also with Ateneo.

Duncil fired 18 points, including eight in overtime as the Tigers completed a 2-1 series victory to join the Far Eastern U Tams in the history books with the most number of titles and co-titles totaling 19 each.

It was the España-based squad’s first UAAP crown since going all the way exactly a decade ago that capped a brilliant four-peat.

It also marked the third time that the Tigers won a title in four times it figured in a deciding Game 3 after dropping the series opener. They won in 1994 and 1995 over La Salle while losing the decider in 1999, also to the Green Archers.

Twice the Eagles had the chance to wrap up the championship in the seesawing, pressure-packed showdown. And twice they blew it.

JC Intal, the go-to guy for Ateneo in the entire season, drove for what could’ve been the game-winner in the final seconds of regulation and in the last 11.4 seconds of the extra period. But both times, his shots rimmed out and out went the championship for the Eagles. It also negated Macky Escalona’s courageous stand, firing 28 points against the Tigers’ unforgiving defense.

The victory relived the victory run by UST in the 90s, the last in 1996, which the Tigers and the school used as a rallying cry to remember the spirit of ’96 in Season 69.

It was indeed a Cinderella-like finish for the Tigers, who shared the cellar in one stretch of the double-round elims, rallied to crash into the Final Four, then upended the UE Warriors to gain a crack at the crown.

Needing a hero when Allan Evangelista and main man Jervy Cruz fouled out one after the other in the closing minutes of regulation, Duncil took charge for the Tigers, hitting one big shot after another in the extra period, including a heart-stopping jumper that gave the Tigers a 74-72 lead with 42 seconds to go.

That was enough for Duncil to win the Finals MVP.

"He’s just like me, he plays like me when I was still young," said Jarencio, who never won a title when he was still a Golden Goldie in the early ’80s.

Until now.

Ababou, who starred in Game 2 with a big 22-point output, hit a free throw with 12.5 seconds remaining in the game then after an Ateneo miss, Jun Cortez drained the front end of his charities off a foul from rookie Eric Salamat but muffed the other with 3.7 seconds left.

But Ababou tapped the ball out in a rebound scuffle with bigger rivals and forced a scramble for the loose ball as the buzzer sounded.

Pandemonium broke loose as the Tigers and their supporters ran into the center court to celebrate one of the most dramatic title runs in the history of the most prestigious league in the land.

Intal, who barely lost the MVP plum to Adamson’s Ken Bono, scored clutch baskets late in regulation and in OT only to miss one of the two key shots — a short jumper from the right flank — that would have given them the lead, or probably the win.

The diminutive but big-hearted John Paul Cuan battled Intal to force a jump ball, thus giving UST possession via the possession arrow rule.

Ababou and Duncil sparked a 17-2 run to turn a 31-37 deficit at the break to a 48-39 lead midway in the third quarter.

But Doug Kramer, who scored the game-winner in a miraculous 73-72 win in Game 1 for Ateneo, spearheaded an 11-3 exchange to close in at 50-51 going into the final period.

The two teams fought each other to four deadlocks in the first quarter, the last at 15-all before Zion Lattere shattered it to end the period with the Eagles barely ahead, 17-15.

But the Eagles padded it more to make it a 29-21 advantage thanks mainly to the backcourt duo of Macky Escalona and Tiu.

Ateneo held on to a 37-31 upper hand at the break that was highlighted by a triple by Ken Barracoso late in the second canto.

UAAP Notes: Personalities from both Ateneo and UST watched Game 3, including new Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas president and chair Manny V. Pangilinan. Also on hand for the historic game was US Ambassador Kristie Kenney. She came here for the second straight game upon the invitation of this year’s host University of the East. She awarded the trophies and medals to the champion, runner-up and third place teams, Olympic style. There were also the players of both schools — both the old and new ones — among them Dennis Espino, Rey Evangelista, Estong Ballesteros, Bobby Jose and Sta. Lucia coach Al Chua of UST and LA Tenorio, Olsen Racela, Rico Villanueva, Larry Fonacier, Wesley Gonzales and Rich Alvarez of Ateneo.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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