By Gio Gloria

Organized chaos is the hallmark of any Aldin Ayo-coached team. It’s what helped the Letran Knights slay the San Beda Red Lions in 2015, allowed the DLSU Green Archers to obliterate the competition in 2016, and now, it has brought the UST Growling Tigers to within two wins from their 19th UAAP Men’s Basketball Championship.

Among all the challenges UST faced this season, this one is without a doubt the toughest, as they will be facing a well-rested and undefeated Ateneo Blue Eagle squad led by master tactician Tab Baldwin. A finals win over the back-to-back champions would cap off this year’s Cinderella team and hand Ayo a signature championship win that would be far more valuable than even his 2015 NCAA title and 2016 UAAP championship combined.

Players usually make the games fun, but it’s the coaching battle that will also make the games interesting. The thing is, this finals series won’t run short of storylines as the likes of Soulemane Chabi Yo, Angelo Kouame, Rhenz Abando, Thirdy Ravena, Mark Nonoy, William Navarro, Renzo Subido, and SJ Belangel have the potential to come away with a breakthrough performance that will etch their names in Philippine college basketball history.

How did UST get there?

The Growling Tigers’ path to the finals compared to Ateneo was as different as night and day. The Blue Eagles basically swept through the competition, while UST finished the elimination round with six losses (three of which came against non-Final Four teams), battled player poaching issues, overcame early bouts of inconsistency, and climbed every rung of the stepladder Final Four to face the back-to-back defending champions.

Their 4-0 sweep of the UP Fighting Maroons in both the elimination round and the Final Four largely contributed to their Cinderella run this season, as the Fighting Maroons could not completely figure out how to defend the resurgent UST squad that came out with a balanced attack that was capped off with super senior Subido hitting a Damian Lillard-esque three-pointer, effectively silencing the UP community.

Death unit: Chabi Yo-Cansino-Subido-Abando-Nonoy

The finals is almost never the time to experiment or put up some gimmick for the fans. Both teams will definitely put their best lineups forward in order to put the other team away, so expect the Growling Tigers to go for its most talented lineup for the crucial stretches of the game.

Chabi Yo is a workhorse, and him winning the MVP cements his status as arguably the league’s best big man. Abando is known for the athleticism that has helped him on both ends of the floor but he can always get points in a hurry, as referenced by his crazy quick eight points in 29 seconds against the La Salle. Nonoy’s speed will test Ateneo’s guards, while Cansino will be the team’s x-factor (more on that later). Subido? Well, the UST community will hope he’s got a few more big shots left in him.

Two-point guard lineups help in countering pressure defense and having Subido and Nonoy on the court together will help ease the ADMU defense that has had a stranglehold on the league this season. Abando, Cansino, and Chabi Yo aren’t terrible ballhandlers themselves and these five together can keep the Blue Eagles on their toes for most of the game. These five players also averaged 9.72 assists per game in the elimination round, accounting for 61 percent of the Growling Tigers’ total assists.

Stats to take note of: Rebounds and second-chance points

UST is the second-best rebounding team in the league, averaging nearly 50 rebounds a contest. In their two games against Ateneo, the Growling Tigers averaged 46 rebounds, nearly two rebounds more than their finals opponent. Both teams lead the league in second chance points and for the UST to succeed, they would need to ensure their opponents don’t feast off easy shots.

Anchor Player: CJ Cansino

Chabi Yo is this season’s MVP so he’ll definitely be a marked man in this series, while Abando will have his hands full guarding the likes of Navarro and Ravena. Subido will make some big shots and Nonoy will continue to be a revelation, but all eyes should be on Cansino.

Cansino was a Mythical Five contender before suffering an ACL injury in the penultimate game of Season 81 and although he has fully recovered since then, he has taken a step back this season considering the stellar stats he put up in his first year. His Season 82 averages of 6.07 points, 4.29 rebounds, and 1.64 assists through 14 games were a far cry from the double-double averages of 12.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists he posted the previous year.

Against Ateneo, the former UAAP Juniors MVP scored a total of six points in both games.The key for him in this finals matchup is to stay active on both ends of the floor. He had eight rebounds in the Growling Tigers’ one-point loss to the Blue Eagles in the first round, so he is capable of challenging the likes of Kouame and Navarro for rebounds. He will need to step up and take the playmaking role that could add another dimension to the UST offense, which must figure out ways to adjust if the three-point shots don’t fall.

Prediction: Ateneo completes the three-peat in three games.

Among all the teams ADMU went up against, it was the Growling Tigers that gave the Blue Eagles the shakes. Yes, the FEU Tamaraws had a sizable margin in their second round matchup against Ateneo, but UST was able to stand toe-to-toe with the that has been described by some as the league’s most inevitable team throughout the game.

Ayo will find some chinks in the Blue Eagle armor, but Baldwin is no slouch. The former national team coach has had ample time to dissect each facet of his opponent and has managed to rally his team to do their job ala Bill Belichick. Both teams are well matched against one another but Ateneo has the deeper bench and championship experience to outlast the gritty Growling Tigers.

UST can take one game from ADMU, but considering that Baldwin is the master of adjustments, Ateneo will always find a way to get the wins to complete the three-peat. The Growling Tigers won’t hand it to them on a silver platter and will definitely give the Blue Eagles (and the fans) the slugfest that makes the UAAP Finals a primetime event.