HOW THEY GOT HERE
The reigning, defending champions hit a few early bumps on the road but eventually turned into the basketball juggernaut UAAP fans expected them to be.
After losing their opening game to the Soaring Falcons, the Ateneo Blue Eagles wasted no time filling in the gaps in their defenses, rampaging through the season as was expected from the team that just before the season, landed 4th place in the Jones Cup.
Coach Tab Baldwin has instilled so much discipline and confidence in his wards that every Blue Eagle game was a display of surgical precision on both offense and defense.
After hitting another snag to end their first round, losing a squeaker of a game to the FEU Tamaraws, they quickly avenged their losses, en route to a second round sweep despite suffering player losses to suspensions and injuries.
Upon entering the Final Four they made quick work of a battle weary FEU team to get back to the Finals yet again.
The Ateneo Blue Eagles make the game of basketball look easy. Their numbers throughout the season reflected the efficiency at which they executed their plays while at the same time prevented opponents from executing theirs.
The Eagles sit atop the league with a sky high 102.29 offensive rating while keeping opponents to a rock bottom 80.15 points per 100 possessions. This kind of efficiency can only be the work of a world class head coach and a team of players that have bought-in to his system.
There’s no way around it, the numbers show the Ateneo Blue Eagles to be the all-around favorite to win the Finals.
KEY PLAYER: Thirdy Ravena
JUST LOOK AT HIM.
Ateneo may have a “next man up” philosophy wherein every player from 1 to 16 and even the equipment manager has to and has the ability to step up when his number is called, but Thirdy Ravena simply embodies what kind of team the Eagles is- a team that will mess you up, no matter what you try to do.
Through the season Thirdy averaged 12.8 points per game, good to very good at best, but it’s the manner by which he gets those 12 points that deflates opposing teams into submission.
His dazzling displays of athleticism on both offensive and defensive ends will make any team think twice about their chances against Ateneo. He already blends this with smarts, but the added flash to his substance just makes it even more painful for opposing teams to watch.
Right now Ateneo doesn’t feel like a contender to the league championship, instead, they’re fittingly playing their part as the gatekeepers to the championship. They feel like a final boss in a video game wherein, if both teams played normally, they would always win. It is going to take their challenger everything they have learned, grown, acquired and mastered throughout the season just to keep in step with Ateneo. And then you realize that Ateneo isn’t an NPC and has also gone through the same growth, learning, and acquisition throughout the season.
By all indications, the numbers, and the history, the question isn’t whether they can beat UP, but by how much.
UP Fighting Maroons (8-5), 3rd seed
HOW THEY GOT HERE
The underdog story of the season, the Fighting Maroons have clawed their way into their first Finals appearance since 1986.
UP entered the season with high hopes but immediately hit turbulence midway through the first round. Fortunately, shooters shoot and scorers score as their superhero combo of Juan and Javi Gomez de Liano started to hit their strides on the tail end of the elimination round. When UP’s Final Four hopes were on the line, they simply delivered. No praying for other teams to beat their rivals for them, they went to work and seized the opportunity to land the third seed, ending the elimination round on a massive amount of momentum which they brought with them to the Final Four.
Not content to just make it, the Maroons exorcized the demons of game-winners past against the Soaring Falcons and pulled off heroics to match the intensity of the series. Twice to beat, twice beaten.
As Paul Desiderio once declared, “Atin ‘to.” And they took it.
The Fighting Maroons have gotten to where they are on the backs of hot shooting by their plethora of scorers. They boast the highest offensive rating next to Ateneo’s at 99.46. Their best quality is their ability to score, and it was on full display in their semifinals series against Adamson.
However, defense will be a huge problem for the Maroons. Among teams that made it to the Final Four, UP is the worst defensive team allowing 96.13 points per 100 possessions. This means if they want to stand a chance they need to rely on what they do best- run.
UP is the league leader in fastbreak points at 15.5 per game. With the many scorers in their lineup, it’s easy to see why they convert on those opportunities so easily.
KEY PLAYER: Bright Akhuetie
The former NCAA standout has been one of the biggest reasons for UP’s success, and it goes way beyond the numbers.
Bright is undeniably the MVP of this team despite the likes of Juan Gomez De Liano and Paul Desiderio being responsible for most of the heroics.
Against Adamson, his value was not visible on the stat sheet but was prominently displayed on the court. Just having Bright there to break the Falcons press was enough to take away Adamson’s biggest weapon. Adamson leads the league in turnover points and is a close second in forcing turnovers. With Bright able to safely bring down the ball for UP, the Falcons struggled to find offense while UP’s own scorers were free to concentrate on getting buckets.
It will be interesting to see what kind of impact Bright will have against a slower paced and more fundamentally sound team in Ateneo, but one thing is for sure with UP, no Bright, no chance.
Atin pa rin?
The overwhelming narrative is, UP is hungrier for a title than Ateneo. Their last Finals appearance came more than 30 years ago, while Ateneo was there for three years straight. But will that hunger be enough?
UP is now at the gate to the championship, guarded by the defending champion. It will take more than hunger and desperation to dethrone Ateneo and they know it. They have been on an uphill climb ever since the second round, they have continued to take what they wanted, but their next opponent is one they have struggled to even make a dent against.
Maybe they’ll just be satisfied with making the Finals, maybe not. UP has been in control of their own fate all season long, it will be interesting to see if they can take control this one last time.