MANILA, Philippines – The Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles will look to seal their fifth straight UAAP championship when they take on the University of Sto. Tomas (UST) Growling Tigers in the highly anticipated Game 2 of the Season 75 men's basketball Finals at the Araneta Coliseum Thursday.
But the Growling Tigers will surely not make it easy for the four-time defending champions, as they are aiming to duplicate their feat in 2006, when they came back from a 0-1 series deficit to win the UAAP Season 69 championship.
|Ateneo's Juami Tiongson goes up for a shot against the defense of UST's Aljon Mariano in Game 1 of the UAAP Season 75 Finals Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena. The Blue Eagles won, 83-78, to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series. Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com.
The Blue Eagles took Game 1, 83-78, behind a career-best performance from graduating forward Nico Salva, who scored 30 points.
Almost 21,000 UAAP fans trooped to the Mall of Asia Arena last Saturday to watch Game 1, which lived up to the hype as the contest once again went down the wire. In the end, it was the Blue Eagles who had more composure and fire power in crunch time.
Game 2, scheduled to tip off at 3:30 p.m., will most likely be another highly charged contest, with both squads having reason to believe that history is on their side.
Repeat of 2006
Since 1994, 14 of the 18 teams who won Game 1 of the best-of-three Finals went on to win the UAAP title.
In their four-year reign, the Blue Eagles have won the first games of every Finals series. They have only lost one game in the Finals – Game 2 against the University of the East Red Warriors in Season 72.
But the Growling Tigers are confident that they can repeat their miraculous run to the title in 2006, which also came against the Blue Eagles.
In that series, the fancied Eagles took a 1-0 series lead after a Doug Kramer buzzer-beater in Game 1, only to see the Tigers win the next two games to clinch the Season 69 title.
This season, the Growling Tigers have earned the moniker "Comeback Cats" after a handful of come-from-behind victories. They are hopeful that in the biggest stage, they can pull of their most epic comeback yet.
"Wala naman kaming magagawa kung hindi bumawi, 'di ba?" UST head coach Pido Jarencio said after Game 1.
Jarencio fully expects his team to perform better in Game 2 after getting a taste of the Finals atmosphere.
"Unang taon pa lang ng mga bata. Isipin mo, naglaro sila, sa championship tapos ganyan ang nilaro?... (Sa Game 2) magse-settle down 'yan. 'Yung experience, na-feel na nila. Wala na 'yung pressure," he explained.
"Pag dating ng Thursday game, magme-mellow down kami. Medyo mas may composure kami, kaya 'yung mga weaknesses namin, maaayos namin," Jarencio added.
Even Ateneo head coach Norman Black said he expects the Tigers to come out strong in the second game.
"It should be another good game and I expect them to come back," he said.
But both coaches pointed out that the 2006 Finals series is not a big factor.
"As (ABS-CBN Sports commentator) Boom (Gonzales) reminded me, we actually lost the last two games against UST in 2006," Black said. "I can't really say that's a factor, because none of my players were on that 2006 team."
"I'm the only one along with my coaching staff who are still here," he said.
"'Yung 2006, iba naman 'yun," Jarencio said. "Ako lang naman 'yung nandito eh."
If the Blue Eagles close out the series in Game 2, they would exceed the feat of the great UST teams of the 1990s and De La Salle in the late '90s and early 2000s. Those squads won four straight titles each before falling short of a fifth consecutive crown.
But if the Tigers win Game 2, they have a chance to complete another stunning comeback in a winner-take-all Game 3 on October 13.
Jarencio fired the first shot immediately after Game 1, when he accused the referees of unfair officiating and implied that they were biased in Black's favor. Adding to the drama of the Finals is the ongoing war of words between Jarencio and Black.
"Unfair naman sa amin, dahil UST lang ba kami kaya ganoon ang tawagan?... Kailangan pa ba mag-English ako para paboran ako? Ganoon ba ang labanan dito? Nasa Pilipinas tayo dapat tayong mga Pilipino ang mahalin ng mga 'yan," Jarencio said.
"Let the players decide, not the officiating," he added.
Black called Jarencio's rant "uncalled for" and "mean."
"The part about speaking English and that I'm American, that's why the refs are biased towards me, that’s uncalled for," Black said.
Black also pointed out that statistics from the game do not back up Jarencio's claims: the Growling Tigers shot 26 free throws, compared to only 12 for the Blue Eagles. Moreover, Black noted that Ateneo was in penalty very early in the fourth period.
"The facts don’t back up what he is saying right now," Black said.
UAAP Commissioner Ato Badolato has maintained that the referees "performed a credible job" in Game 1 of the Finals.
"It was a fairly officiated game. There were no calls that would have altered the outcome," he said.
Both coaches are expected to make adjustments for Game 2, with Black hoping that the Blue Eagles will avoid another slow start, while Jarencio is aiming to get his star big man Karim Abdul more involved in the Tigers' offense.
Tickets for Thursday's clash are already sold out, according to Ticketnet’s website.
Before the game, the UAAP will announce the winners of the season's individual awards, including the Most Valuable Player, the Rookie of the Year, and the members of the Mythical Five, in the awarding ceremonies at 2 p.m.