Saturday’s Game 1 of the Universities Athletics Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Finals was like any other La Salle – Ateneo encounter, an exciting and highly emotional one. This was a highly anticipated rematch of last year’s finals, which the Green Archers won. But this time, the Blue Eagles managed to take the 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series with a masterful 76-70 victory over their archrivals.
Prior to the finals, the two schools split their games, 1-1, in their Season 80 match up. Ateneo nipped La Salle, 76-75, in the first round meeting, while the Archers got back at the Eagles, 79-76, in the second round duel. Ateneo was on its way to sweeping the elimination stage with a 13-0 record, but La Salle spoiled the Eagles’ outright finals entry hopes with that win in the second round. Both squads arranged a finals rematch after surviving in the semis against tough contenders Far Eastern University and Adamson University.
Entering the finals, the Green Archers were still the favored team being clearly more talented and powered by two-time UAAP MVP Ben Mbala. The Blue Eagles, on the other hand, baffled many with their success this year considering that they don’t have the most talented roster. Last year, Ateneo let go of several prize recruits that included FEU star Arvin Tolentino, Adamson spitfire Jerie Pingoy and NCAA Season 93 MVP CJ Perez of Lyceum for various reasons. But obviously, the biggest reason for Ateneo’s eminence this year is second-year head coach Tab Baldwin. The Kiwi-American hoops guru, equipped with a vast knowledge of the sport from a stellar 35-year coaching career, cleared the decks by letting go of players that could not fit well with the system, and whipped the team into top shape, using discipline and an almost military-like approach. Now, the Blue Eagles are on the brink of a UAAP championship they last held in 2012, during a historic five-year reign under then head coach Norman Black. The Katipunan-based team banks on its hard-nosed defense and balanced offense to offset the talent and size of its opponents.Composed of mostly former stars from Ateneo’s high school squad, led by Thirdy Ravena, brothers Matt and Mike Nieto, Anton Asistio, Jolo Mendoza and Aaron Black, this young squad embraced Baldwin’s philosophy and vowed to follow their commander to battle. 6’9” Nigerian center Chiz Ikeh and 6’8” former Xavier School standout Isaac Go are the only legit big men in the team but both cagers improved tremendously from last year, and held their own defensively against the bullstrong Mbala. Go, in particular, came up with the big shots in both the semis and finals.Thirdy, the younger brother of pro bound and former King Eagle Kiefer, is the team’s top performer with averages of 14.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 3.3 assists, which are good enough to earn him a second straight Mythical Team honor.
Baldwin, who once led New Zealand to the FIBA World Championship semis, made two major strokes that became instrumental in defeating the mighty Green Archers – break the full-court press and score in transition, and limit the scoring output of Mbala. This was no easy feat by any means, considering the vaunted “Mayhem” defense of La Salle, and the scoring prowess of the Cameroonian sensation, who became the second-best scorer in the FIBA Africa Cup two months ago. Mbala was so impressive that he caught the eye of many NBA scouts. But in Game 1, the second-year power forward was limited by the Eagles to merely eight markers, a far cry from his 26 points per game norm. Baldwin chose to fight fire with fire, engaging La Salle in a style the Archers are most notable for. Ateneo won in areas normally ruled by La Salle: 16-13 in fastbreak points, 20-13 in offensive boards, 14-12 in second-chance points, and 34-30 in inside scoring. The Eagles led by as many as 13 markers in a contest that saw four lead changes and six deadlocks.
But don’t count out the defending champs yet for they have enough to extend the series. The young crew led by Ricci Rivero, Aljun Melecio, Kib Montalbo, Andrei Caracut and Leonard Santillan, is far from done this season.