La Salle, Ateneo duel for all the marbles
A championship series that had looked all but over a few days ago finally gets a fitting ending on Sunday before an expected sellout crowd at Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Defending champion La Salle, which fought back emphatically after it was pushed to the brink of an epic meltdown two quarters into Game 2, and Ateneo, disciplined and organized for majority of the season before suddenly going cold when it was on the cusp of glory, duke it out one last time this season, looking for a fairytale ending to UAAP Season 80.
The Green Archers and the Blue Eagles have seen the best and worst of each other in an emotionally-charged, highly-physical series, but both teams are hoping to come out with their finest performance yet in the biggest, most important game of the season.
“I don’t see any team backing down, I don’t see any team giving up,” said Ateneo assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga. “It should be an exciting game.”
For the Archers, it will be all about sustaining the momentum from the awe-inspiring 92-83 win in Game 2, where they rallied from a 21-point second-quarter deficit to force the winner-take-all clash.
For the Eagles, it will be all about putting the nightmarish ending of the previous game behind and rediscovering the form that made them nearly unstoppable early on in Game 2 before the Archers’ fightback.
“We’ll just enjoy this opportunity and no matter what, we’ll fight,” said Ateneo co-captain Mike Nieto, who starred in the 76-70 win in Game 1. “We have an opportunity to win the championship, we have to be still excited about that.”
The Eagles took Game 1 by holding two-time MVP Ben Mbala to a career-low eight points, while executing efficiently down the stretch. They started Game 2 with all guns blazing, before the Archers mounted one of the biggest comebacks in UAAP Finals history thanks to their defensive intensity.
“There’s no point in looking at losing a 21-point lead but learning why it happened and what can we do to prevent it,” said Ateneo’s Thirdy Ravena.
The Archers may be on a high from the Game 2 victory, but Mbala knows the task is far from finished.
“No, we go here to be champions,” said Mbala, who had 20 points and eight rebounds in Game 2. “That’s what we all work for. We’re gonna come out to try to grab that trophy.”
Aljun Melecio, who was also instrumental in the comeback in Game 2, echoed Mbala’s statement, even as he warned the Archers to brace for the Eagles’ response.
“Ateneo is going to fight until the end,” said Melecio.
While he rued his squad’s lack of killer instinct in Game 2, Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin knows the Eagles are equipped enough to handle the pressure of a do-or-die game.
“I still think that’s a positive,” said Baldwin, pointing to the Eagles’ win over Far Eastern U in the Final Four. “I think that helps and hopefully it will help enough to be one of the factors that gets us across the finish line on Sunday.”
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