Ateneo, La Salle stay perfect—but one unbeaten run will end in showdown of rivals
After two years of hibernation, basketball’s fiercest existing rivalry finally returns to the big—however still empty—stage.
And it may seem that both defending Ateneo and La Salle got there on the same path, riding undefeated runs into their first pandemic-era clash in the UAAP men’s basketball tournament slated on Saturday at Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena.
But not all unbeaten cards are created equal.
Ateneo has been untouchable this season—and in its last 29 UAAP games, in fact—and its 78-47 victory over Adamson on Thursday at MOA Arena only calcified the idea that it is headed for a fourth straight championship celebration virtually worry-free.
The Blue Eagles have led by at least 20 points in their first three outings and their average winning margin (16.3) has in fact been weighed down only by strong fight-backs by their first two foes. They seemed to have cleaned up their finishing kick against the Falcons, and it seems the only problem for Ateneo is how to convince people that it will actually face a problem this season.
“We approach every game the same way, we respect our opponents and we’ll play the right way, as a team,” Ateneo center and Gilas Pilipinas national team standout Ange Kouame said on Thursday. “Coming to the next game, it will be the same mentality and we try as much to cover as much mistakes and learn from it and keep moving forward.”
La Salle, on the other hand, started the season shakily but wound up with the same card as its rival—3-0 win-loss—after disposing of a tough challenge in Far Eastern U, 75-65 in another match on Thursday.
Justin Baltazar had 20 points and 11 rebounds as he joined hands with Kurt Lojera in a knee-capping 13-2 run that turned a hairline lead into a 75-63 cushion entering the final minute.
And Baltazar, also a Gilas Pilipinas standout when Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin handled the program, is also eager to put on a show on Saturday, the last UAAP playdate that will be played without fans. The league will admit a limited number of fans in playing venues starting April 5.
“I will apply all the things I learned from [Baldwin and Gilas] in our game,” said the 6-foot-7 center, who Baldwin modified into a stretch big/wing at the national team.
“We will do our best. This is a different story. They are no longer my Gilas teammates. It’s a battle of school pride here in the UAAP,” Baltazar added. “We will stick to coach’s game plan, prepare hard and improve whatever we did in our past games.“
Last loss in 2018
How La Salle’s best will stack up against an Ateneo program that hasn’t lost since October 2018 will be the focus of Saturday’s duel of rivals.
But the Green Archers know that the Eagles can shift to a higher gear so easily. The champs did so on Thursday, running the Falcons down with an 18-0 run in the third period. Kouame joined hands with Dave Ildefonso and Josh Lazaro in engineering that burst as Ateneo widened an eight-point edge to 54-28 in the third quarter.
Kouame showed the way for the Blue Eagles with 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting and added 10 rebounds, one block, one steal and an assist to keep his team unbeaten in three games.
In a later game on Thursday, University of the Philippines earned its second win in three outings after holding off National U, 80-70.