Tams ready for Final 4 rematch with Ateneo
Olsen Racela knows that by circumstance, he can’t escape the memories of—and references to—last year’s UAAP Final Four.
In that previous semifinal encounter, Far Eastern University pushed eventual champion Ateneo to the limit, forcing the Blue Eagles to reach for their twice-to-beat advantage. And even with that playoff bonus as a crutch, Ateneo needed the breaks—a huge three from Isaac Go and five extra minutes—before eliminating FEU.
And now an encore: Ateneo, now defending champion and still donning a twice-to-beat armor, stands in the way of FEU’s bid.
“Ateneo is a very tough team,” said Racela, the FEU coach, late Wednesday, after narrowly escaping perennial Final Four contender La Salle in a knockout match for the last Final Four berth. “[The matchup] always brings back (memories) of last year’s Final Four.”
But that’s all the memories are: Snapshots of the past. Racela doesn’t need an in-depth look at Ateneo’s current roster to spot the difference from last year. In fact, the name leaps out of the Blue Eagles’ lineup like a rebounding demon.
“Last year, they didn’t have Angelo Kouame,” Racela pointed out.
Kouame, despite playing only his first year with the Eagles, has had an immediate impact on the Katipunan squad. He compiled an average of 14.4 points an outing to go with 13.6.
The first-year big man’s individual showing has been so impressive that he is the closest pursuer to University of the Philippines’ Bright Akhuetie in the Most Valuable Player award race. Akhuetie, who towed the Maroons to the No. 3 seed, flaunts averages of 18.8 points and 14.6 rebounds.
But Racela is not pawing for the panic button just yet. Instead, he is looking at every bit of luxury he can count on.
“We’re healthy now,” he said. “We have 16 guys against Ateneo. It’s going to be a tall order because we’re going against a team that swept the second round, right? But we’ll see.”
“We’ll be needing every single one of [them],” he said of his wards.
The cagers themselves, as far as motivations go, have plenty to use.
Arvin Tolentino hit the booming three against La Salle that sealed the 71-70 victory and formalized their rematch with his former school.
But he also flubbed a clutch possession last season that could have helped FEU complete an upset against Ateneo.
“Last year, we had a chance to make it to the Finals,” Tolentino said in Filipino. “And we blew it.”
And when he had the ball in his hands and the game on the line, only one thought raced through his mind: “Never again, never again.”
Kenneth Tuffin, who was also instrumental in FEU’s 7-2 run that disposed of La Salle, chimed in, saying they look to walk their talk.
“On social media, we [post] ‘Don’t Count us Out.’ We believe in that, that’s why other people should believe in us, too.”
“Our goal is not only to make the Final Four,” Racela added. “That’s just one phase of our goal. We’re on to the next phase.”
Sunday’s showcase at the MOA Arena will mark the fourth time the two teams tangle for a finals berth, with FEU winning the first two meetings.