MANILA, Philippines -- Since its establishment in the short shorts year of 1938, the intense competition in the UAAP has spawned several notable school rivalries. There’s the fabled Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) versus De La Salle University (DLSU), which needs no further explanation, the “Battle of Katipunan” between Ateneo and the University of the Philippines (UP), the “Battle of the East” between Far Eastern University (FEU) and the University of the East (UE), and the heated championship battles between La Salle and the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in the 1990s.
Ateneo versus FEU is not one of them.
For some reason, the Blue Eagles and the Tamaraws have hardly faced each other in the postseason since the Final Four was instituted in 1994. In fact, they have only met twice in the semifinals and once in the finals. This season, fans will finally witness the seemingly evasive match-up once again. Come Saturday, Ateneo and FEU will kick off their best-of-three championship series and add a new chapter in what could be a cutthroat rivalry in the future. But one couldn’t move forward without looking back. As they say, history is the best teacher. So it’s only apt to revisit the past post-season encounters between the two esteemed teams in recent memory.
2000 Final Four
Ateneo came into the season as one of the heavy favorites with a deep and talented roster led by Enrico Villanueva, Rich Alvarez, Wesley Gonzales, and Paolo Bugia. The boys lived up to the billing as they earned the twice-to-beat advantage in the Final Four after finishing second to powerhouse La Salle in the eliminations. Waiting for them were the Tamaraws, bannered by graduating players Edwin Bacani and Celino Cruz and 1999 Rookie of the Year Leo Avenido.
All signs pointed to an easy win for the Blue Eagles as they were riding a 6-game winning streak and beat FEU twice in the eliminations. But the boys from Morayta had other things in mind. In the first game, the Koy Banal-coached Tamaraws escaped by the skin of their teeth, 61-60, thanks to a Miko Roldan jumper. Ateneo actually had the chance to seal the win during the previous possession but Andrew Cruz muffed both of his free throws. In the do-or-die match, Bacani and Cruz torched Ateneo with 23 and 16 points, respectively, to complete the giant upset, 75-67. They became only the third team in league history to defeat the higher seeded squad in the semis. FEU went on to battle the Green Archers in the finals but got swept in two games.
2001 Final Four
The already solid Ateneo roster from 2000 even got stronger the following season with the maturity of sophomores Larry Fonacier and Magnum Membrere and the addition of blue-chip rookie L.A. Tenorio. The FEU quintet, however, wasn’t too shabby as well. The graduation of the triumvirate of Bacani, Cruz, and Avenido may have left a gaping hole, but guys like Rysal Castro, Gerard Jones, and Cesar Catli were on the rise.
Once again, the Blue and White finished the eliminations at second place with a 10-4 record behind La Salle and earned the twice-to-beat card in the semifinals. This time around, they made sure there would be no repeat of the choke job from the previous season. The Joe Lipa-mentored Blue Eagles exacted sweet revenge over their Morayta counterparts as they pulled off a hard-earned 67-63 victory. FEU actually led majority of the game but Ateneo made a key run in the fourth quarter, led by Tenorio and Membrere. The game was tied at 63 with a minute remaining but Membrere broke the deadlock with a cold-blooded three-pointer to give the Ateneo the win. They marched to the championship for the first time since 1988 but bowed to archrival La Salle in three pulsating games.
Just like this season, Ateneo and FEU finished the eliminations in 2003 as the top seeds, having an identical 11-3 slate. The Katipunan 5 still boasted of an intact core of two-time MVP Alvarez, Gonzales, Fonacier, Bugia, Tenorio, and Membrere. In contrast, the Tamaraws featured a revamped line-up, a young rag-tag squad spearheaded by Arwind Santos, R.J. Rizada, Mark Isip, and Denok Miranda. The Blue Boys went through the hole of the needle in the Final Four after needing a do-or-die game to beat La Salle. FEU, on the other hand, didn’t get into much trouble in the semis after trouncing a James Yap-led UE, 67-63.
The finals featured two teams with the best record and the best group of talent. It also showcased an interesting clash on the sidelines as the Banal brothers, Joel and Koy, were on opposite sides. Game 1 wasn’t even close as the FEU took advantage of a fatigued Ateneo five and romped to an 83-65 rout—the second most lopsided win in UAAP Finals history. Game 2 wasn’t much of a difference as the Morayta Men continued to overwhelm the Blue Eagles with suffocating defense, which saw Tenorio miss all of his 10 three-point attempts and Gonzales limited to just two free throws. It was all Tamaraws as Catli, Rizada, and a then unknown rookie Jeff Chan alternated in hitting from the outside. They never relinquished the lead and went on to complete the sweep, 69-53. They ended their six-year title drought and earned their 18th title.