MANILA, Philippines - Coming off a disappointing loss to the UE Red Warriors, National University Bulldogs head coach Eric Altamirano wanted his boys to play their style of game against the UP Fighting Maroons - hard-nosed defense and quality offense with balanced contributions from everyone on the roster.
His Bulldogs made sure to step up to the challenge.
"As what I told the boys, we had to assert our identity in this game," Altamirano said after NU defeated UP, 66-51, on Sunday, September 7, at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Alfred Aroga had 18 points and 10 rebounds, fighting past back spasms that have hindered his health dating back to the team's victory over Ateneo two weeks ago.
"When he's on the court, sweating already, nag loo-loosen up yung back niya," the head coach explained, as Aroga was a huge factor in NU outscoring UP in the paint, 46-14.
"We felt we had an advantage inside," Altamirano explained. "So we really looked to attack inside."
With the win, the Bulldogs improve to 8-4, getting closer to securing a Final Four berth and creating some separation between them and 6-5 University of the East.
NU's win also eliminated UST from Final Four contention, exacting revenge against the team that eliminated them in each of the past two UAAP seasons.
"We just have to play it one game at a time. Ang goal lang namin is to win the games that we can win, to qualify for the Final Four."
NU is back in action against, ironically, UST on Wednesday, September 10.
"We need those wins to be able to make it to the Final Four," the NU coach mentioned.
Gelo Alolino, Troy Rosario, and Glenn Khobuntin all had 9 points each for NU, which shot 49% from the field and outrebounded UP by 14, 43-29.
The Fighting Maroons were spearheaded by Mikee Reyes, who put up 13 points on a disappointing 5-of-17 line. Henry Asilum contributed 11 markers.
Altamirano was unhappy with NU's turnovers (21).
"These are the things we really have to lessen coming into crucial games. We have to be more disciplined in terms of taking care of the ball."
The floodgates opened for National University in the third quarter, but not before the Fighting Maroons exerted some effort to narrow the gap between both teams.
With the tall Aroga in between him and the ring, Dario opted to throw a floater instead of going for the layup, and in the process gathered the foul while making the shot.
But that turned out to be the best highlight of the third quarter for University of the Philippines.
Following Dario's three-point play, Alolino went to work and hit his one of many contested mid-range jumpers for the game to halt the Maroons' short rally. Afterwards, Khobuntin made a shot of his own to increase the Bulldogs' lead up to 13.
The following possession, Rosario got open from the top of the key and behind the three-point line thanks to a pick-and-pop play, and converted a banker after the ball rattled around the rim for a few moments.
UP head coach Rey Madrid called for time after, hoping to re-group his guys and go on another run. But it worked to no avail as the Fighting Maroons struggled from the field the rest of the way against NU's top-ranked defense.
Near the end of the period, Aroga got an open path to the rim on the break and put up the best highlight of Season 77 so far - a posterization of Mark Juruena, who was on the wrong end of the rookie big man's tomahawk slam.
The Bulldogs held a 50-32 lead at the end of the third period and were on cruise control the rest of the way.
UP fell to 1-12, and will finish their campaign in Season 77 of the men's basketball tourney against the Adamson Soaring Falcons - the same squad they beat to earn their lone victory in 2014.
The Fighting Maroons misfired all game long, making just 17 shots on 56 attempts, and going 6-of-21 from downtown. State U also had another bothersome performance in terms of distributing the ball, as they finished with only 9 assists.
JR Gallarza registered 11 points for UP, while Kyles Lao's struggles continued with his 2-point performance.
NU played careless to start the game as they coughed up the ball five times in the early minutes of the first quarter.
Due to UP's early slump, the Bulldogs bucked their mistakes and was hot from the field. It didn't take long before NU erected their first 10-point lead of the ball game, going ahead 15-5, after back to back floaters from Alolino and Rodolfo Alejandro.
A 3-ball by Mark Juruena made it just in time before the first quarter came to a close, getting his squad within 7, 15-8, after 10 minutes of play.
The Bulldogs struggled from the field after their hot start, going scoreless in five minutes of game action to start the second period until a tough fade-away by Alolino near the free throw line put an end to their slump.
Unfortunately for the Maroons, they weren't able to take advantage of their opponents' dry spell from the field as they also had a tough time getting points on the scoreboard, eventually finishing the first half with only a 20% shooting clip from the field.
A Nico Javelona triple off the inbound play extended NU's five-point lead to eight, and not long after, Perez grabbed a missed shot and scored the put-back to put his club back up by 10, 24-14.
Asilum nailed a left-corner 3-ball to cut the lead down to 7, but the Bulldogs converted the second quarter's last five points to take a 29-17 edge by halftime.
NU (66): Aroga 18, Alolino 9, Khobuntin 9, Rosario 9, Celda 5, Javelona 5, Perez 4, Diputado 3, Alejandro 2, Betayene 2, Neypes 0, Tansingco 0, Yu 0
UP (51): Reyes 13, Asilum 11, Gallarza 9, Dario 8, Juruena 4, Lao 2, Moralde 2, Vito 2, Lim 0, Gingerich 0, Harris 0
Quarter Scores: 15-8, 29-17, 50-32, 66-51