THE biggest rivalry in the NCAA gets rekindled in the biggest stage right in the country’s biggest arena.
Obviously, the men’s basketball Finals of the 88th season can’t get any better than this.
Arch-rivals San Beda and Letran battle for college basketball’s ultimate prize starting on Thursday when Game One of their best-of-three title series tips off at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Game time is set at 6 p.m. with both the Red Lions and Knights hoping to gain a huge momentum with a victory right in the Finals opener.
This will be the third championship meeting between two teams which are both gunning for a league-leading 17th men’s cage title.
After they finished the eliminations on top with a 15-3 record, the twice-to-beat Lions held off University of Perpetual Help Altas in the Final Four and marched to their seventh straight Finals appearance.
And the goal has never changed for the Mendiola-based dribblers - win the title for the third straight year and for the sixth time in seven years.
“Our mission has always stayed the same -- to be at the top of the league at the end of the season,” Lions rookie coach Ronnie Magsanoc said.
For the favored Red Lions to achieve the rare feat, they would have to take it step by step.
“Mahirap kung iniisip mo na agad yung end result pero hindi mo iniisp yung kailangan mong gawin para marating yun. Forward thinkers kasi ang mga bata eh,” added Magsanoc.
History is on the Lions’ side as they have beaten the Knights 14 consecutive times dating back to 2007, the last time Letran reached this far in the season.
But Knights coach Louie Alas is confident his team has a fighting chance to stop the Lions’ dynasty.
“It’s all about willingness,” he stressed.
Alas’ assistant, Tino Pinat, backed up his head coach’s words.
“I feel we have closed the gap with the way we’re playing lately,” Pinat said of the Knights, the league’s hottest team right now after winning eight straight games and 10 of their last 11 outings.
Lions team manager Jude Roque could not agree more, saying San Beda will be facing a “different” Letran team compared to the squad it swept in two elimination-round games this season.
The Lions scored a 65-43 rout in the first round, before scoring a hard-earned 68-62 win in the second round.
“Our two wins in the regular season don’t matter anymore,” Roque said.
But high-scoring Kevin Alas, son of the Letran coach, thinks the Lions are just using it as a psychological ploy, repeating the notion the Knights remain as the underdogs.
“Play down lang yan nila,” the 20-year-old guard said of the Lions. “Siguro dagdag pressure rin sa kanila.”
The younger Alas and San Beda’s Baser Amer will be in the spotlight as both playmakers try to lead their respective teams. But two big men in Letran’s Raymond Almazan and Ola Adeogun of San Beda are also expected to play vital roles in the series.