UAAP Basketball

History within grasp of UP Fighting Maroons

Naveen Ganglani
History within grasp of UP Fighting Maroons

UPPER HAND. Carl Tamayo and the UP Fighting Maroons draw first blood against the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

UAAP

The UP Fighting Maroons are a win away from repeating over the Ateneo Blue Eagles and becoming the first team in UAAP history to win two championships in the same year

MANILA, Philippines – If the Ateneo Blue Eagles entered the UAAP Season 85 men’s basketball finals with momentum following their impressive recent performances – which included a morale-boosting triumph over the defending champions – then it didn’t take long for their neighbors from Katipunan to regain the upper hand.

The UP Fighting Maroons did what smart teams do: deliver the first emphatic blow. By outscoring Ateneo 28-19 in the opening 10 minutes of the finals, UP built enough of a cushion for the inevitable Blue Eagles fightback, preserving a crucial 72-66 Game 1 win despite getting outscored the rest of the way.

The Fighting Maroons were helped by self-inflicted mistakes from an Ateneo side which over the course of its dynasty dominated the opposition in part because of committing fewer personal errors.

This current batch of Blue Eagles are still well-run, but so far, they have not displayed the same possession-by-possession and situational mental fortitude their predecessors performed with on a consistent basis, particularly in high stakes.

UP’s drawing of first blood was aided by a 15-of-26 (57.7%) shooting display from the foul line for Ateneo, which isn’t surprising given the Blue Eagles’ average free throw shooting (66.8%) in Season 85. The Fighting Maroons also won the battle in the trenches: 10-1 in points off turnovers, 13-1 in fast break points, 13-7 in second chance points, plus 35-15 in bench production.

There were eight players in UP who scored at least 5 points each while only five players scored more than 3 points each for the Blue Eagles. The top rebounding team in the league, Ateneo got beaten off the boards, 45-39, and committed more turnovers, 15-12.

Some of the offensive boards the Blue Eagles allowed UP left Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin visibly frustrated.

While the Blue Eagles took turns delivering offensive production, the Fighting Maroons attacked them like a well-rounded collective machine, a reversal of roles from the opening chapters of what’s now a blossoming rivalry between two very good teams with passionate fan bases.

“Ball movement was really there. I liked the way the team was looking for the open man,” Goldwin Monteverde said afterwards. He made the surprise move of inserting Zavier Lucero and Henry Galinato with the starters and brought Carl Tamayo and Malick Diouf off the bench. It was a strategy that paid off.

Days after Baldwin requested for the Mall of Asia Arena – where the opener would be played – and The Big Dome to be filled with fans in blue-and-white, it was once again the State U crowd which was more boisterous from the 18,211 total in attendance, particularly from the general admission section.

The mental lapses Ateneo committed went beyond just the data displayed on the stat sheet. Too often the Blue Eagles sustained a crack in the armor thanks to miscommunication and ball-watching on defense, which are the easiest ways to allow an adversary easy scoring opportunities.

In a battle between equally talented and skilled contenders, it’s the side which creates more opportunities through multiple possessions that usually comes out victorious, winning the game in the margins. On Sunday, December 11, that designation belonged to the Fighting Maroons.

Dave Ildefonso finished with 10 points on an ineffective 3-of-12 shooting display, including 2-of-4 from the foul line. Angelo Kouame, a former UAAP MVP, shot only 5-of-12 from the field but had the unenviable task of anchoring a defense for almost the entire game despite his knee being far from 100% because of Ateneo’s lack of productive big men.

Forthsky Padrigao finished with 16 points but committed 5 turnovers. Kai Ballungay went scoreless in his first finals matchup. Gab Gomez scored only a single point. Chris Koon and BJ Andrada were solid in their minutes, but not enough to carry the lack of overall firepower that could result in a series sweep for UP if it manifests the same way on Wednesday.

The Fighting Maroons played like men on a mission – the type of standouts who believe they are the superior team in this matchup and want to prove it. Their dedication to pressure, man-up defense and to keep the ball moving on offense paved the way for arguably their most impressive performance of the season, all avenues considered.

Lucero played like the optimized version many in UP hoped he would grow into when he was first recruited with the potential of an “MVP-caliber player,” expectations he did not shy away from. A sequel to his Game 1 performance would net him a Finals MVP plum, highlighted by what’s now his customary trait of providing game-altering plays.

In the first match of the Season 84 Finals, it was Lucero who spearheaded UP’s late fightback to force overtime and steal victory, without which the Fighting Maroons would not have become champions.

This time around, it was him who made the game-defining play with an athletically-ridiculous block on Koon, leading to another breakout in transition for Alarcon who hit a three-pointer.

That swing, which took place in less than 5 seconds of real time, transformed what would have been a tied contest down the stretch, with Ateneo having momentum to a multiple-possession advantage for the reigning champs, who would then go on to build and keep their lead.

“Coach always says in practices, ‘It’s five versus one on the floor,’ so anytime there’s an opportunity to help because somebody gets beat [off the dribble], it’s on us to be there for those guys, to make sure no one’s left on an island. That was just me in the right place, in the right time,” Lucero explained.

This series isn’t done. For Ateneo to remain within striking distance given the disparity in areas of the game is an encouraging sign for the Blue Eagles amid the disappointments. Their passionate scream of “Go Ateneo, One Big Fight!” in the locker room post-match sound like a unit that’s far from defeated.

The Fighting Maroons are on the driver’s seat, but their proud and competitive opponents now get to play with nothing to lose, a sentiment that can yield pressure-free and dangerous basketball on the hardwood.

In the last Battle of Katipunan finals, it was Ateneo’s dynasty on the line against what many felt was UP’s destiny to end a 36-year title drought.

This time, it’s turned into UP’s potential history-making accomplishment of winning two UAAP titles in the same year – something that’s never happened before and might never happen again – against Ateneo’s quest for retribution in regaining its crown.

“It’s great,” Lucero, who received a water bottle shower after his Game 1 performance, told the media.

“But obviously, we have another one ahead of us, so as soon as that buzzer sounds, we’ve got to move on and focus on preparing for the next game.”

The opportunity is right there for UP, well within grasp.

History awaits, as the next game is set for Wednesday, December 14. – Rappler.com

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