MANILA, Philippines – The physicality of Game 1 of the UAAP Season 80 men's basketball finals didn't surprise Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin, who expects a similar ball game to play out in Game 2 on Wednesday at the Araneta Coliseum.
Game 1 saw Ateneo and La Salle combine for 47 fouls, with the most physical moment occurring with less than a minute left in the second quarter. La Salle center Ben Mbala inadvertently hit Ateneo point guard Matt Nieto with his elbow, opening a bloody cut above the Blue Eagle's left eye.
Nieto was able to return to the game and played a big role in the Blue Eagles' 76-70 win, but the incident was just one of many that showed the heightened intensity of the game.
"We anticipated that," Baldwin said of the physical contest against the Green Archers.
According to the veteran mentor, a tough, grind-it-out, overtly physical game is expected whenever Ateneo plays against the defending champions – a team that prides itself on its pressure defense.
"It would be silly to think otherwise, because that's their MO, and they're good at it. They push the rules to the limit, the referees to the limit," Baldwin said of La Salle.
Baldwin considered it a minor triumph that his big men – Chibueze Ikeh and Isaac Go – were called for a combined nine fouls after playing 38 minutes. This, even as he pointed out that Ben Mbala and Abu Tratter played 57 minutes and combined for eight fouls.
"That's crazy to think of that as some kind of victory, but when you play La Salle, it is," he said as he once again highlighted how his big men always seem to be in foul trouble whenever they play against La Salle.
As Baldwin said, he and the Blue Eagles are used to this situation and will expect the same kind of physicality when they try to wrap up the best-of-three series on Wednesday.
"La Salle won't be any different on Wednesday," he said.
"I don't expect we'll have to think any different going to Wednesday's game. It's the second battle of a long war," he added.
His players, who say they are not going to back down against the Green Archers, have already accepted this mindset.
"Wala, they play like that," shrugged Mike Nieto, whose 11-point second half explosion was partly fueled by the sight of his brother getting hurt by Mbala's accidental elbow.
"We'll just cope with it. Kagaya ng sinabi ni coach Tab sa amin, we just gotta cope with it if you want to win a championship."
Besides, said Nieto, a physical game is to be expected whenever the two rivals play each other, and that only goes to another level in the finals.
"Siyempre hindi magpapatalo yung school namin and at the same time, hindi din naman magpapatalo ang La Salle. So wala, we just have to cope with it especially coming into Game 2," he said.
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