NOW it all boils down to the two best teams in the UAAP this season.
Reigning champion Ateneo stakes its bid for a rare fifth straight men’s basketball championship against a driven University of Santo Tomas on Saturday as Game One of their long-awaited best-of-three rematch gets underway before a sellout crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Game time of what many expect to be a closely-contested best-of-three series, is set at 3:30 p.m, with the result expected to readily give a hint on how the series will go.
Since the Final Four was first instituted in 1994, 14 of the 18 teams that won Game One went on to claim the championship.
Of the four exceptions, one of them came in 2006 and authored no less by UST, which swept the remaining two games of the series to beat Ateneo for the title.
While coach Pido Jarencio was the architect of that astounding come-from-behind title conquest by the Tigers six years ago, he doesn't want to fall in the same situation of having to win the final two games of the series again.
“For me, ‘yung Game One, importanteng- importante kasi kahit anong sabihin mo, maganda ‘yung sila ang maghabol, hindi ikaw,” said Jarencio.
“Hindi mo kasi masabi ‘yung series, baka game-changer ‘yan,” added Jarencio.
But the Eagles are just as eager to get the initial advantage in the Finals as they are just two wins away from becoming the first team since University of the East (1965-72) to become champions for five straight seasons.
The Eagles do look good going into their rematch with the Tigers.
They finished the eliminations on top of the standings with a 12-2 (win-loss) record, and then perked themselves up for the Finals by beating arch rival La Salle Green Archers in the Final Four, 66-63.
Ateneo coach Norman Black, calling the shots for the team one last time, said the match against the Green Archers could come in handy against the Tigers as they play similar in one aspect.
“Just like La Salle, they are a good offensive rebounding team particularly Karim Abdul. He averages like four or five offensive rebounds a game, and some of their players like (Aljon) Mariano are also good rebounders,” said Black, set to assume the head-coaching job of Talk `N Text in the PBA shortly after the season.
“We have to do a better job on our rebounds and that’s probably our No. 1 concern."
The Ateneo mentor also said they have to defend well against UST’s shooters in Jeric Teng and Jeric Fortuna.
Jarencio admitted it will really be tough beating a talented and an experienced team like Ateneo.
“Malakas ang Ateneo because they work as a team offensively and defensively. Kailangan naming humanap ng solusyon dyan,” he said, making a roll call of the names Kiefer Ravena, Greg Slaughter, Nico Salva, and Ryan Buenafe as among those the Tigers are concerned about.
That’s the reason why it’s the Eagles – and not the Tigers – who should feel the pressure owing to their star-studded lineup.
“’Yung pressure, wala sa amin. All along, sinabi ko sa mga bata, ang pinakamahirap ‘yung pagpunta ng finals. Ang pinakamadali, ‘yung finals kasi wala ka ng iniisip,” Jarencio said.
The Tigers finished as the No. 2 team at the end of the eliminations and disposed of National University in the Final Four, 63-57, to make the title series for the first time since their 2006 championship run.
Ateneo and UST split their head-to-head encounter this season by an average winning margin of 1.5 points.
The Tigers won their initial meeting, rallying from a 19-point deficit to prevail, 71-70, before the Eagles evened things up in the second round with a 68-66 win in a protest-marred game.