By Jerome Lagunzad
(Mall of Asia Arena)
4 p.m. — La Salle vs Ateneo
(Game 1, best-of-three finals)
For La Salle coach Aldin Ayo, winning is the only thing.
So he expects nothing less than an all-out performance from his wards today when they take on archrival Ateneo Blue Eagles at the start of their best-of-three UAAP Season 80 basketball finals that’s expected to draw a mammoth crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Tip off is at 4 p.m., with La Salle determined to sustain its resurgence after winning its last eight matches dating back to the second round of eliminations and Ateneo out to rediscover its flair following a rough sailing the past two weeks.
This will be the sixth time in the last three decades that the “Blue versus Green” rivalry will be rekindled at the biggest stage of them all, with Ateneo enjoying a slim 3-2 advantage over La Salle in their head-to-head matchup.
However, the Blue Eagles, gunning for their first crown — and ninth overall — since their “five-peat” run under Norman Black ended back in 2012, are in for a tough grind in their bid to avenge a two-game finals sweep last year.
That’s because the Green Archers, after an up-and-down showing in the opening round, have already settled down and appear to be more dangerous than ever as they intend to make it back-to-back for the school’s 10th title.
“Wala namang motivation kung hindi championship. ‘Yun lang,” said Ayo, who himself is gunning for a third straight collegiate title after steering his alma mater Letran to the NCAA crown in 2015. “Wala ng kung anu-anong mga hugot-hugot or ano. Championship lang, ‘yun ang pinag-uusapan doon.”
Over at the Eagles’ nest in Katipunan, the same thing holds true.
“This is a very good opportunity for us. We have a chance to write our own history,” said long-time Ateneo assistant Sandy Arespacochaga.
“But it’s not gonna be easy and we know that. Just to have a chance to compete for a chance to win the championship is a very big blessing. Even though we’re up against a very strong team, we’d like to think of it as a blessing. It’s a very good test of character for our boys and another opportunity for them to grow.”
The Eagles, led by Thirdy Ravena, Matt Nieto and big man Isaac Go, have grown leaps and bounds in terms of playing as a fluid unit and showing poise under duress which came to the fore in their knockout duel against the Far Eastern University Tamaraws last Wednesday.
But doing such against a talented Green Archers side, bannered by set-to-be-named two-time league MVP Ben Mbala and shifty guard Ricci Rivero, is easier said than done.
“La Salle is the defending champs, they’ve got the MVP, they’ve got very good players,” said Arespacochaga, referring to other Archers vital cogs like veterans Kib Montalbo, Andrei Caracut, Aljun Melecio, Abu Tratter and Santi Santillan.