The UAAP season is now officially over, with two playoff games capping off another exciting season. This year’s hosts, the University of the East Warriors, finished with a less than impressive 3-4 record at the end of the first round, but had a blistering second round that gave them a chance to snatch the final postseason spot away from the National University Bulldogs. Despite leading much of the way in their playoff game, the Warriors failed to put the Bulldogs away, as NU escaped with a win, 51-49.
On the other playoff game, the De La Salle University Green Archers faced off with the Far Eastern University Tamaraws to determine the second seed. The virtual best-of-three series saw the Archers coming back from a huge deficit, but had to hope that Mike Tolomia would give them a chance to steal the game. Tolomia missed two crucial free throws that should have put the Ateneo Blue Eagles away in their matchup to determine the top seed. He would not be denied this time, nailing two free throws with six seconds left to give FEU a five-point lead that would be the margin of victory, 65-60, and the twice to beat advantage against DLSU.
This season saw some notable events even from those eliminated from the Final Four. Back to back runners up University of Santo Tomas failed to crack the Final Four this year, as they failed to rebound from a 3-4 first round start. We saw the University of the Philippines break their streak of futility by beating the Adamson Falcons at the end of the first round, and a celebration that rivals that of a championship win. The Falcons, though, got back against UP in their penultimate game, giving rookie coach Kenneth Duremdes his first and only win of the season.
With the Final Four teams already set, we’ll have to wait to see if we’ll see another La Salle-Ateneo matchup. However, apart from the fact that both schools are on totally different situations (Ateneo has a twice to beat advantage as the first seed, while DLSU needs to beat FEU twice), both teams are also facing the teams that match up very well against them. Here’s a look at the Final Four pairings:
(1) Ateneo De Manila Blue Eagles vs (4) National University Bulldogs
Season Results: Ateneo 60 – NU 64 (First Round), Ateneo 66 – NU 76 (Second Round)
In a match-up that nobody in the preseason would have conceived, both the Ateneo Blue Eagles and the NU Bulldogs performed beyond what was expected from them. The Eagles missed out on the Final Four last year, and coming into the season with not much drastic changes, they were expected to compete for a Final Four spot, but not exactly the top spot. The Bulldogs, for their part, lost their MVP in Bobby Ray Parks, Jr., and despite a talented lineup, were not expected to be favorites to barge into the Final Four picture. Yet here they are, matched up against each other in a top seed and a fourth seed who both needed to win their final games to earn their positions.
During the regular season though, it seems that the Bulldogs have the Eagles’ number. NU snapped Ateneo’s early season win streak, and gave the Eagles their only back to back losses in the season in the second round. While Ateneo has the twice to beat advantage, the Bulldogs are no strangers to top seed upsets in the Final Four. Add the fact that they have already beaten Ateneo twice this season, and we’re left to wonder, who truly are the underdogs in this matchup?
The Eagles won their five consecutive championships on the back of the dominant shoulders of Rabeh Al-Hussaini and Greg Slaughter. Without a big man of their caliber last year, the Eagles failed to make it back to the Final Four. This year, they haven’t quite found that in former Green Archer Fonzo Gotladera. However, he’s been a good complement to their small ball lineup. Since their frontcourt isn’t exactly their bread and butter, the Eagles could focus more on their strengths rather than match up with the Bulldogs. Speed will be their advantage, as Nico Elorde, Chris Newsome, Von Pessumal, and this year’s newly crowned MVP, Kiefer Ravena, could run circles around their defenders on offense.
For their part, the Bulldogs have established themselves as the best defensive team of the season. Apart from their suffocating pressure defense, their last line of defense is Alfred Aroga, who the Eagles know all too well especially after their second round matchup. Gelo Alolino proved to be a very capable court general throughout the season, and will pose a problem for Ateneo, especially with his ability to stretch the floor with his shooting and to push the pace with his drives or passes. Speaking of outside shooting, Nico Javelona has been one of the most reliable outside gunners for NU especially in the second round. The biggest problem for Ateneo though, would be Troy Rosario, whose improved game has been one of the biggest reasons for the Bulldogs’s rise this season. Team captain Glen Khobuntin has also helped out in crashing the boards, and would find ways to contribute on offense.
Advantage: Ateneo. The Bulldogs may have an advantage on the boards because of their size. However, the Eagles have good rebounding guards and that guy, Kiefer Ravena. The King Eagle didn’t win MVP for nothing.
Ateneo does not have a deep bench, but they do have serviceable players at their disposal. Gwyne Capacio and Gideon Babilonia will need to be ready to be called on as they will have the unenviable task of trying to contain either Alfred Aroga or Henri Betayene. Rookie Arvin Tolentino has shown flashes of brilliance especially early in the season, but hasn’t shown much after his first and only double double performance of the season against UST. It may be tough to ask him to grow up fast, but they’ll need him to be able to contribute especially against this dangerous NU team.
Betayene gives the Bulldogs a formidable center rotation that Ateneo may not be able to match. While Betayene may not be the most creative offensive player, he can give Ateneo problems with his size. Forward Kyle Neypes also provides energy off the bench, much like the energy provided by Khobuntin in the starting unit. Jess Diputado has recently seen the floor for the Bulldogs as well when they rest either Javelona or Alolino.
Advantage: NU. Coach Eric Altamirano is able to spread minutes to his players, something that is crucial especially with the type of game the Bulldogs play. His bench has players who can offer the same contributions as his starters, which allows him to not lose much when he changes players up.
Prediction: Ateneo in 2. The Bulldogs match against the Eagles too well, and we wouldn’t mind seeing two highly contested games between these two teams. Interestingly, no matter how much they dominated the Eagles this season, the Bulldogs only need to lose once to them to be eliminated.
(To be concluded)
Images by inboundpass.com UE Red Warriors vs. NU Bulldogs, Aug. 3, Ateneo Blue Eagles vs. UE Red Warriors, Aug 10, DLSU Green Archers vs. NU Bulldogs, Aug. 13 from Flickr.com. Used under CC license. Some rights reserved.