By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
Senior Reporter

COMPETITION in Season 82 of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines enters the high-stakes phase beginning today with the step-ladder semifinals.

The third-seeded Far Eastern University Tamaraws (8-6) and fourth seeds University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers (8-6) get the proceedings going as they battle in a knockout match set for 4 p.m. at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

Waiting for the winner between FEU and UST are the second-seeded University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons (9-5) in the next stage of the semifinals.

The UAAP Season 82 semifinals were thrown to a step-ladder setup after three-peat-seeking Ateneo Blue Eagles (14-0) completed a sweep of the elimination round, something not seen in the league for more than a decade.

In the elimination round, the Tamaraws and Tigers split their series with UST taking the first encounter, 82-74, and FEU exacting payback in the second round, 72-58.

Morayta-based FEU had it roller-coaster for much of the elimination round until it found its footing in the homestretch, racking up three straight victories to give its playoff push a huge boost.

The Tamaraws averaged 68.43 points a game in the eliminations, eighth in the league, and was led by guard LJ Gonzales with 10.8 points per contest on top of 7.4 rebounds and four assists.

Graduating player Wendell Comboy has been good for 10.4 ppg and 4.8 rpg in his final year with Xyrus Torres adding 7.4 points in the elimination round.

Big men Pat Tchuente and Barkley Ebona have been combining for 14.3 points and 17.5 rebounds.

“Well, who would have thought of us making it to the Final Four? Not many believed that we would reach where we are right now, except for those in our circle and, of course, the FEU community,” said a proud FEU coach Olsen Racela after their final elimination game on Oct. 27.

“But we are not done. Our goal every year is really to make it to the Final Four then we move on to the next goal. We’ve achieved our first goal, and now to the next,” he added.

The Tamaraws are making their seventh straight UAAP semifinal appearance.

While FEU was the worst offensive team in the elimination round, UST was tops with an average of 79.21 points a game.

Leading most valuable player candidate Soulemane Chabiyo leads the Tigers with double-double numbers of 16.9 points and 14.7 rebounds.

Rookie sensation Rhenz Abando backstops him with 12.2 ppg, 5 rpg and 1.2 bpg while fellow freshman Mark Nonoy chips in 10 points a game.

Veteran guard Renzo Subido, meanwhile, has been good for 8.2 ppg and 3.5 apg.

The Tigers hit a rough patch midway into the elimination round but steadied in the end, winning three of their last four matches to make their way back into the playoffs after missing the cut in the three previous seasons of the UAAP.

“Entering the season our expectations were not too high. We only wanted to improve on our performance last season and we were able to do that, adding three wins from last year. That’s a huge improvement considering ours is still a young program. But we are not going to stop there because this is a competition and we will continue to strive,” said UST coach Aldin Ayo of leading his team back to the Final Four.

Meanwhile, Ateneo’s SJ Belangel was named UAAP player of the week after an impressive showing against UP on the final game of the eliminations on Oct. 30.

Belangel scored 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting in his team’s 86-64 victory over the Maroons that completed for the Eagles a sweep of the eliminations.