“They’re very tough and definitely the team to watch out for this year.”
That was how Ateneo coach Norman Black assessed the squad he deemed formidable enough to foil the Blue Eagles’ ‘five-peat’ bid.
Far Eastern University? Nope. Host National University? Not exactly.
University of Santo Tomas? Correct.
You read it right folks. It’s the Growling Tigers, no less.
Now, Black and the Blue Eagles will have to go through this “team to watch out for” if they want to win their fifth straight UAAP crown.
All roads lead to MOA Arena Saturday as Ateneo and UST rekindle their equally-intriguing rivalry in Game 1 of the best-of-three finals showdown for the men’s basketball title.
Game time is set at 3:30, with the top-seed Blue Eagles, who finished the eliminations with a 12-2 mark and ousted archrival La Salle Archers 66-63 in the Final Four, emerging the odds-on favorites against the Tigers, the second-ranked team with a 10-4 record and who booted out the Bulldogs 63-57 in the semis.
The two squads split their elimination meetings, with UST charging back from 19 points down to pull off a 71-70 stunner last July 19 and Ateneo returning the favor via a close 68-66 decision last Sept. 15.
Judging from those games, another tight and grueling finals battle is expected, similar to their 2006 clash won by the Tigers in three hard-fought games.
“We know we’re up against a very good team,” stressed Black, 54, in a phone interview with Yahoo! Sports Philippines. “They’re very good offensively and also in rebounding. That’s why we have to address those if we want to win.”
According to Pong Ducanes of imperium.ph, history is on the side of Game 1 winners, with 14 out of 18 squads going on to hoist the title since 1994.
That explains why Jarencio, 48, wants the Tigers to go all-out in drawing the upperhand in the race-to-two battle, saying: “Importante ‘yung Game 1, hindi mo masasabi dahil baka game-changer ‘yan. Baka mag-iba ‘yung disposition ng kalaban pag nanalo ka ng una.”
“Ang sabi ko sa mga bata ‘Ang pinakamahirap ‘yung pagpunta ng finals. Ang pinakamadali ‘yung finals, dahil dalawa na lang kayong naglalaban. Wala na kayong iisipin pang iba. Kaya importante talagang makauna. Kahit ano pang sabihin, maghahabol at maghahabol pa rin ‘yung kalaban ‘pag nanalo ka,” he added.
More than avenging their 2006 defeat, the Blue Eagles have ample reasons to give it their all: To offer chief patron Manny V. Pangilinan another prize despite his sudden pull-out of support, and to give Black a fitting send-off before he makes a return to the pro league.
“The team is actually dedicating this season to MVP. For all the years that he has supported us, we are grateful to him. He was the leader from the very start. At the same time, we also want this championship for coach Norman. We want to send him off with a bang,” stated team manager Paolo Trillo.
The marquee match-up between towering center Greg Slaughter of Ateneo and UST’s Cameroonian import Karim Abdul inside the lane will surely hog the limelight, likewise their well-balanced supporting cast.
“Malakas ang Ateneo because they work and play as a team, offensively and defensively. Kaya hinahanapan namin ng solusyon para makakuha ng advantage sa kanila,” noted Jarencio.
Black stated: “We know they match-up well with us, personnel wise. We’re trying to figure out how to attack them while stopping them on the other end.”
Explosive guard Kiefer Ravena, coming off a 28-point outing against the Archers, is tipped to anchor Ateneo’s charge anew along with forward Nico Salva, playmaker Juami Tiongson and reliable Ryan Buenafe while Jeric Fortuna, Jeric Teng, Aljon Mariano and Kevin Ferrer are expected to provide needed help for UST’s cause.
According to Black, fans can expect another thrilling finish, saying: “I think it’ll go down to the last shot.”
More College Hoops stories:Ateneo vs. UST: Who's Your Pick?