Let the war begin!

BITTER rivals Ateneo de Manila and De La Salle begin a finals showdown no one thought would happen in Season 79 of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) men’s basketball tournament.

The Green Archers, the favorites, and the underdogs Blue Eagles start their best-of-three title series at 4 p.m. on Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena.

La Salle was tagged as overwhelming favorite with Cameroonian Ben Mbala and Jeron Teng at the start of the season. They did not disappoint and emerged top seed on a 13-1 win-loss record in the eliminations and withstood the challenge of the pesky Adamson University in the Final Four, 69-64, to return to the finals since Season 76, where they also won the title.

Ateneo? No one really expected the Blue Eagles to reach this far, especially after going 4-4 in their first eight games.

Coach Tab Baldwin’s wards went on to win their next six games to finish No. 2, including an 83-71 triumph over La Salle in the second round that denied the Green Archers a sweep and an automatic finals seat.

Does one win make them even with the Green Archers? Baldwin doesn’t think so.

“If they don’t see that we’re the underdogs, they’re blind. We are the prohibitive underdogs in this tournament, but the confidence we take from having beaten them once is crucial,” Baldwin said.

“But, I think, we have some momentum. We have certainly some inspiration that we’ll take from the win [in the Final Four], and we are going to stand in front of them,” Baldwin added. “We are not going to bow out of the way. We’re going to [bloody] them, just like I’m sure that they want to [bloody] us.”

Baldwin is facing a coach who is starting to make a name for himself.

Aldin Ayo caught the fancy of La Salle patron Danding Cojuangco after leading an unheralded Letran side over talented San Beda College in the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) finals last year.

Ayo had little time to celebrate with the Knights, as he was tasked to prepare Mbala and the Green Archers for the UAAP season.

“I’m now on the other side. Last year [with Letran], we were the underdogs. This year, [although it’s from the media], we are the team to beat,” Ayo said.

“The pressure is different [with the NCAA], it’s more difficult here [UAAP]. I feel that with 14 wins [with La Salle], we don’t need to celebrate. Every won game for me is just a relief. At Letran, every won game, we celebrated because nobody expected us to win. It’s a different situation. But if there’s one thing that makes it the same, it’s basketball.”

Mbala, who will be named season Most Valuable Player, will be the biggest thorn the Ateneo defense has to endure in the series. But Isaac Go has been playing impressively for the Blue Eagles and could hold fort against their rivals’ dominant big man.

Go, despite a bloodied nose, delivered the game winner against Far Eastern University in overtime, 69-68, to send Ateneo back to the finals for the first time since Season 75.


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