MANILA, Philippines—For the first time, Ateneo de Manila University and University of the Philippines will be facing off in the finals of the UAAP.
Katipunan will be divided when the Blue Eagles and the Fighting Maroons battle in the best-of-3 title series of the UAAP Season 81 men's basketball tournament, which starts Saturday at Mall of Asia Arena.
Game time is at 3:30 p.m.
The two teams took contrasting roads to the grand stage.
For Ateneo, the road was as straightforward as can be. The defending UAAP champions compiled a 12-2 win-loss record in the eliminations — sweeping the second round — to secure the No. 1 seed and a twice-to-beat edge in the final 4.
The Blue Eagles were nothing short of dominant in the semifinals, as they crushed Far Eastern University 80-61 in a game that was never close.
UP, for its part, had a tougher trek to the championship series. The Fighting Maroons had a 3-5 record at one point, before winning five of their last six games to barge into the final 4 as the No. 3 seed. There, they met an Adamson team that had swept them in the eliminations.
The Fighting Maroons hacked out a hard-earned 73-71 win last Saturday to force a deciding game, wherein they outlasted the Soaring Falcons, 89-87, in overtime to secure their first finals appearance in more than three decades.
-- Elimination round match-up --
The Blue Eagles dominated their elimination round match-up with the Fighting Maroons this season.
In both instances, Ateneo was coming off a loss. After opening their campaign with a setback against Adamson, the Blue Eagles vented their ire on UP in their second game, claiming an 87-79 triumph.
That game saw UP's Juan Gomez de Liano go off for 29 points, but Bright Akhuetie was limited to only 8. Moreover, four Ateneo players finished in double-digit scoring in the game.
In the second round, Ateneo claimed an even more impressive triumph, 83-66. It was another bounce-back win for the Blue Eagles, who entered the game off a loss to Far Eastern University.
Thirdy Ravena had 21 points to lead Ateneo's charge, while Akhuetie had 20 points. Gomez de Liano was limited to 5 markers.
UP has not beaten Ateneo since Season 79, when the Fighting Maroons pulled off a 56-52 upset of the Blue Eagles in the second round.
-- Underdogs --
UP head coach Bo Perasol has acknowledged that the Fighting Maroons will be the underdogs in the series.
"No basketball aficionado in his right mind would probably give us a good chance against Ateneo," he said after their triumph over Adamson.
However, the coach is more than willing to embrace this status, and is confident that his team has what it takes to compete against a powerhouse Ateneo squad.
"We would want the tag that UP doesn't stand a chance against Ateneo. There is something that we do that's going to keep us going forward, looking to that championship game against Ateneo," he said.
"We know that we could take something from that, the courage, the resilience, our feeling that we need to keep moving. We need to keep fighting, no matter what the odds are. That had been our team principle in this season."
Ateneo, which is seeking a 10th UAAP title, is simply looking to take care of business heading to the game.
"It's the same procedure that we do every single game, which is to watch the video, know what they're doing, know how they run things, and of course we have to prepare so basically the same mindset kahit ibang team yung kalaban namin," said Thirdy Ravena.
The finals will be a battle of the two best offensive teams in the league. Ateneo ranked first in points per 100 possessions at the end of the elimination round (102.48), with UP a close second (101.16).
Defensively, Ateneo was the stingiest team in the league, allowing just 80.46 points per 100 possessions. UP, for its part, was a below average defensive team as it allowed 97.65 points per 100 possessions, good for only sixth in the league.
The series also features the match-up of two of the best foreign student-athletes in the UAAP. UP's Bright Akhuetie earned MVP honors after averaging 18.9 points and 14.6 rebounds per game, but Ateneo's Ange Kouame also shone in his first season, with averages of 14.4 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per contest.
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