By John Bryan Ulanday

UNIVERSITY of the Philippines (UP) and La Salle, the two teams installed as the closest challengers to unbeaten Ateneo’s reign, lock horns in a pivotal mano-a-mano for a solo second spot to maintain a hairbreadth distance from the leaderboard of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Season 84 at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.

Both sporting 4-1 cards, the Fighting Maroons and the Green Archers figure in a fiery opening salvo at 10 a.m. with the winner claiming a reward to stay on the coattails of three-time defending champion Blue Eagles (5-0) approaching the tailend of the first round.

National University (NU) and Santo Tomas, which both fell short in upset bids against Ateneo and La Salle, respectively, follow suit at 1 p.m. before Ateneo shoots for 32nd straight win against winless University of the East at 4 p.m. Adamson and FEU cap off the night at 7 p.m.

UP and La Salle bolstered their squads with a slew of prized recruits in the offseason that was stretched by the pandemic for two years — all for a mission of toppling the Ateneo dynasty.

Both of them though have missed in their first attempts to clip Ateneo so far with UP falling short at 90-81 in the opener and La Salle running out of steam at 74-57 last weekend.

Now, they collide for the next biggest prize in the meantime of sneaking around the Blue Eagles’ nest for a chance to return the favor and snatch the top seed in the second round.

“We cannot go against La Salle with the same defensive intensity we had against Adamson. We need to really work on it to be ready for a team like La Salle,” said UP coach Goldwin Monteverde after his team barely beat struggling Adamson, 73-71, for their fourth straight win.

For the Green Archers following a 75-66 win against Santo Tomas, coach Derrick Pumaren is banking on a continuous balanced attack to stand a chance against UP in a critical duel that will also feature Gilas Pilipinas bigs Carl Tamayo and Justine Baltazar.

Ateneo, on a 31-game win streak, for its part tries to shrug off a serious scare in a 74-64 decision against NU as it seeks to move a step away from a first-round sweep against the winless but hungry UE.

“I think we have a good basketball team. I don’t think we’re a great basketball team so there’s a lot of work for us to do,” said coach Tab Baldwin, who tipped his hat to NU mentor Jeff Napa after a close match that was decided only at the last minute.