By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
FOR the first time in the basketball tournament of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines the Ateneo Blue Eagles and University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons are battling it out in the championship.
A “Battle of Katipunan” between the neighboring school, the titular was set after UP completed the upset of the higher-seeded Adamson Falcons in their Final Four with a gutsy 89-87 victory in overtime on Wednesday in their do-or-die match that saw the Maroons overhaul the twice-to-beat advantage that the Falcons had in the semifinals.
The win thrust the Diliman-based Maroons to a meeting with the defending champions Eagles, who was first to barge into the finals of Season 81 and are out to notch back-to-back titles.
Ateneo comes into Game One of the best-of-three affair on Saturday on a major roll, winning eight straight, including an 80-61 shellacking of the Far Eastern University Tamaraws in their own Final Four pairing on Nov. 25.
They have been in the top two in the league in nearly all categories, punctuated by a UAAP defensive-best 61.8 points allowed per game, with no signs of slowing down.
Big man Ange Kouame is leading a very balanced Ateneo attack with numbers of 14.7 points, 13.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per ball game.
Veteran Thirdy Ravena has been steady for 12.8 points and 6.3 rebounds with Matt Nieto, Anton Asistio, Raffy Verano and Isaac Go among the players providing ample support for the Eagles.
Ateneo has had the number of UP this season, taking their first two encounters previously by an average margin of 12.5 points, taking their first-round encounter, 87-79, and the second, 83-66.
While they are the defending champions and currently in top form, the Eagles are not taking any chances and vowed to continue work to see their cause through.
“Hopefully the experience we have as champions would help us but it’s going to be a new game in the finals. It’s not a guarantee that we know what would happen,” said Ravena following their victory over FEU in their last game.
STAYING THE COURSE
After 32 years of finals absence, the Maroons are back in championship mix after surviving a tough challenge from the Falcons.
Faced a twice-to-win handicap in the Final Four, UP rose over it with two spirited victories that had them just refusing to lose despite the all-out efforts shown as well by its opponent.
The Maroons broke their finals drought with the courageous overtime victory over Adamson on Wednesday that had captain Paul Desiderio once again providing clutch baskets down the stretch in front of a mammoth 20,909 crowd.
UP is the top offensive team in the UAAP with an average of 80.4 points per game, led by soon-to-be-named league most valuable player Bright Akhuetie with 17.7 points per game to go along with 14.8 rebounds.
Juan Gomez De Liano backstops him with 17.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and five assists a game with Desiderio steady for 14.2 points.
Happy that they are now in the finals, UP coach Bo Perasol said they are not yet done and that they will try to go deep as they can against a team he admits to be the best this season.
“It was not an easy journey for us this season but it was all worth it. We are in the finals. No basketball aficionado in his right mind would give us a chance against Ateneo but there is something in us that will keep us going in the finals. We are going to show courage and resilience no matter the odds are, that has been our team principle this season,” said Perasol, who incidentally coached Ateneo from 2013 to 2016 before taking the UP job.
Game One of the finals between Ateneo and UP is on Dec. 1 at the Mall of Asia Arena at 3:30 p.m. It will shown live over ABS-CBN S+A.