Congratulations to La Salle for taking Game 1 of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) best-of-three finals. But we have to applaud the efforts of Ateneo after almost doing the improbable last Saturday. Let’s face it, the Green Archers are the hands down favorites this season, even before the tournament started. And by all indications, Taft Avenue will have a grand parade soon.
But what was supposed to be a lopsided series was turned into a dogfight by the heavy underdog Ateneo side, which pushed La Salle to its limits and almost escaped with an upset win in the final few seconds of the opening game. The rookie-laden Blue Eagles came so close to slaying the Green Giant when they retained possession in the final 30 seconds or so, and with a one-point lead. But Matt Nieto, who made the big shot that put his team in the driver’s seat just a few seconds earlier, lost the leather to Archers skipper Jeron Teng, who coasted to the basket for the winning shot. Aaron Black’s jumper was blocked by Teng in endgame to preserve the 67-65 victory for La Salle.
Being a college basketball aficionado, I would like to see another classic Ateneo-La Salle battle in Game 2 on Wednesday. But this will be almost entirely up to the Blue Eagles. With momentum on the side of the Archers, we can anticipate the La Salle animo to be at its highest in Game 2. But after falling 2-16 in the opening period of Game 1, the Ateneans slowly clawed back in the game until it became interesting in the third canto. There’s no question that the Eagles will be fighting tooth and nail to prevent a La Salle sweep. But they must play a near perfect game to topple a machine like La Salle.
The Green Archers have visibly two of the best players in the league – Season MVP Ben Mbala and super senior Jeron Teng. They also have top rookie Aljun Melecio, plus a platoon of other talents like Thomas Torres, 2015 Rookie of the Year Andrei Caracut, Prince Rivero, Abu Tratter, Jason Perkins and Kib Montalbo. And they have first-year coach Aldin Ayo, whose brand of trapping defense has done wonders for the Archers in this year’s campaign. La Salle is a tough nut to crack this year to say the least.
But Ateneo has Tab Baldwin, a proven winner in the international stage as hoops mentor. The American-Kiwi, who propelled the New Zealand Tall Blacks to the semis of the 2002 FIBA World Championship, can find ways to win. In fact, after a slow start, Baldwin was able to make the necessary adjustments in the second round that turned things around in Ateneo’s campaign. The Eagles staged a six-game winning run that included a convincing upset victory over La Salle. I have no doubts that Baldwin will come up with some surprises in Game 2 that could help extend the series to a winner-take-all finale.
With a well-executed defensive game plan, the Eagles were doing fine in Game 1 even when Mbala posted double-double figures of 20 markers and 15 boards. The problem for Ateneo was more in making their shots. Black was the lone blue shirt in double digits, with 12 points. In Game 2, the Eagles need more guys to step up big offensively. With the same defense in Game 1, they can probably still turn Game 2 into another defensive combat, which works to Ateneo’s favor. But La Salle is no defensive slouch either. The Eagles must improve on their shooting clip and have a more balanced offense with the perimeter shooting of Adrian Wong, Mike and Matt Nieto, Raffy Verano, and even Issac Go; the long-distance guns of Anton Asistio and Jolo Mendoza; and the inside points from Thirdy Ravena and Chibueze Ikeh. And they must limit the turnovers.
I expect no less than another fierce and intense slugfest in Game 2. I know the Green Archers will be going all out to covet their ninth UAAP crown. But after almost pulling the rug from under their arch rivals, I also know the Blue Eagles have one more big fight left in them to even the score.