Fierce rivals La Salle, Ateneo start UAAP finals series
It’s a championship duel with a dream storyline: A team that has lived up to expectations all season up against a squad that has defied the odds.
Add the fact that La Salle and Ateneo are the fiercest of rivals in college basketball and will be meeting with the stakes at its highest for the first time in eight seasons, then nothing less than a classic series is expected when the best-of-three UAAP Season 79 finals gets going with Game 1 at Mall of Asia Arena today.
The Green Archers lorded over the league for almost the entire season and appeared champions-in-waiting after winning their first 12 games.
That was until they met the resurgent Blue Eagles in the second round last Nov. 5 when Ateneo delivered a statement of intent—a jarring 83-71 defeat of La Salle to prevent the elimination-round sweep.
The two teams took on different paths to the championship round with La Salle needing just one game to dispatch Adamson in the Final Four, while Ateneo survived a bruising duel with defending champion Far Eastern U in the do-or-die semifinals.
As impressive as their 97-81 drubbing of the Eagles in the first round meeting last Oct. 2, the second-round loss continues to bother the Archers. But they’re taking heart at the fact that they will be getting a shot at payback in the best-of-three finals.
The Archers flaunt the league’s biggest stars in MVP Ben Mbala and Mythical Five member Jeron Teng, but a bunch of players like Kib Montalbo and rookie Aljun Melecio, have embraced their roles in coach Aldin Ayo’s “mayhem” system, which disrupts teams with a suffocating pressure defense.
Mbala carries most of the load for the Archers, averaging 20.7 points, 16 rebounds and 2.5 blocks this season.
“It’s all about who wants it more,” said Ayo. “It’s not going to be just about effort, but execution.”
Ateneo has thrived in its role as an underdog all season and it will no longer be a shock when the Eagles pull another upset in the finals, after a resilient stand in the elimination round.
With a team built around second and third-year players, like Thirdy Ravena, Isaac Go and Aaron Black who developed as the season progressed, the Eagles are seeking a first championship in four years.
“If they don’t see that we’re the underdogs, they’re blind,” said Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin.
“We are prohibitive underdogs in this tournament but we take confidence from having beaten them once.”
Baldwin feels the adversities over the course of the season capped by the cliffhanger against FEU in the semifinals were ideal preparation for his squad.
“I think that we have some momentum,” said Baldwin, whose squad somehow survived the loss of skipper G-Boy Babilonia to an ACL injury. “I just feel so blessed to be involved in this process.”
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