FOR the first time in University Athletic Association of the Philippines men’s basketball history, University of the Philippines (UP) and De La Salle University will face off in the finals.
And it is expected to be a monumental best-of-three series pitting the preseason favorites against the hottest team in the league.
Both the Fighting Maroons and the Green Archers will head to the first game of the best-of-three finale on Wednesday full of confidence at the SM Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
UP, will sport a five-game winning streak — including a 57-46 romp of defending champion Ateneo last Saturday to advance to the finale.
Meanwhile, La Salle has yet to taste defeat since a 67-64 loss to UP, riding a season-high nine-game winning streak — capped by a masterful 97-73 rout of National U also last Saturday.
Tip-off is 6 p.m.
Undeterred is first-year Green Archers Topex Robinson entering the Big Dance as he tries to give La Salle its 10th men’s basketball title — first since UAAP Season 79 (2016)
“La Salle is not an underdog. It’s just a matter of giving the players that freedom to really flourish and to be at their natural best,” said Robinson, who steered Lyceum of the Philippines University to back-to-back finals appearances in NCAA Seasons 93 and 94 (2017 and 2018).
“Everybody from the start knows their natural roles. The clarity of roles was evident from the onset. Everybody knows that these guys will win games for us, and these guys will also lose games for us.”
Familiarity among the protagonists will also be key in the series.
Leading MVP candidate Kevin Quiambao was previously teammates with UP’s Harold Alarcon, Gerry Abadiano, Terrence Fortea, Janjan Felicilda, Reyland Torres, and Cyrill Gonzales during their days at National University Nazareth School under Goldwin Monteverde.
Then there are graduating guards CJ Cansino of UP and Mark Nonoy of La Salle, former teammates at University of Santo Tomas who are looking to end their collegiate careers with gold.
Finally, there’s the long-standing rivalry between senior point guards Evan Nelle of La Salle and JD Cagulangan of UP, the former looking for payback for the heartbreak the latter caused him in the semifinals of the NCAA Season 93 Juniors Basketball Tournament when they were still with San Beda-Taytay and La Salle Green Hills, respectively.
Already having two Finals under his belt, third-year Fighting Maroons head coach Goldwin Monteverde knows the finals is a whole different ballgame.
The most important thing is to control what they can control.
“It’s just a result of our hard work. All of these are not planned. Like I said, whatever comes through, we have to prepare just to fight over every challenges. At least we’re thankful but it’s not yet done,” said Monteverde, who is looking to give UP its third title in the sport — second in three seasons.
Game Two of the series will be on Sunday at the SMART Araneta Coliseum. If the finals reaches its limit, the winner-take-all tilt will be on Wednesday, December 6 still at the Big Dome.
Meanwhile, there will be no love lost in the women’s finals as eight-time defending champions NU Lady Bulldogs and the UST Growling Tigresses begin their series as well at 12:00 p.m.
Though the Lady Bulldogs swept the Tigresses in the elimination round, NU needed overtime to escape UST in their second round clash, escaping with a 77-76 victory last November 5.
“As I said before, I think UST is the team to beat this year and we’ll do our best to keep the championship in our school,” said Dimaunahan, who will lean on the likes of Camille Clarin, Tin Cayabyab, Angel Surada, Ann Pingol, and Stef Berberabe to retain the crown.
The Tigresses though are looking to avenge their Finals loss to the Lady Bulldogs four seasons ago.
Still part of the UST team from that squad are Tantoy Ferrer, reigning MVP Eka Soriano, and Tacky Tacatac.
UST has also proven before that NU can bleed, ending the 24-game winning streak of the Lady Bulldogs in 3×3 last May to cop the crown.
Now, they have to do it in the realm of 5-on-5 basketball.
“I think with the championship experience of NU, we have no advantage whether we are on fire or not. We have to really prepare and work harder for NU,” said Ong, whose wards had to go through a two-game war with UP in the Final Four.
“I think the edge is still in NU but we will try and get that championship.”
Opening the day will be two boys’ basketball games.
Adamson and Ateneo, winners on opening day last November 21, will face off at 8 a.m. followed by UST and UPIS gunning for win no. 1 at 10 a.m.