Two wins separate one team from extending its reign while the other from reclaiming the throne it lost seven months ago.
The first step towards University of the Philippines and Ateneo de Manila University’s goal begins as they clash in an all-important Game 1 of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines Season 85 men’s basketball tournament best-of-three finals showdown today at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Action starts at 6 p.m. with both the Fighting Maroons and the Blue Eagles oozing with momentum following their successful stints in the Final Four where they defeated National University and Adamson University, respectively.
This is the third time in four seasons that the two teams will face each other in the tournament’s biggest stage with the Blue Eagles prevailing in 2018 before the Fighting Maroons getting their payback just last May in three games to end a 36-year title drought.
They also split their eliminations head-to-head duels this season.
But while the Fighting Maroons are the reigning champion, the odds are stacked against them.
The Fighting Maroons are facing the Blue Eagles who are now at their peak after stringing seven straight wins, including an 81-60 demolition of the Falcons last Wednesday.
There are also doubts over the health and condition of some UP players, especially star forward Carl Tamayo, who suffered a right ankle injury in their 69-61 Final Four win over the Bulldogs.
Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin, however, would like to think that they are the underdogs.
“He (UP coach Goldwin Monteverde) sees an Ateneo team that is probably playing its best basketball this season, but he knows that we’re still heavy underdogs in this game,” Baldwin said.
The mentor also points out that UP is virtually fielding the same roster that denied them a four-peat.
“You might smirk at that, you might say that, you know… I don’t know, I don’t know what you’d say. But that intact roster that you’re talking about is a championship roster. And, that’s a championship coaching staff,” he said.
Aside from Tamayo, the Season 84 Rookie of the Year, back to get a repeat for the Fighting Maroons are last season’s Finals Most Valuable Player and projected MVP Malick Diouf, James Spencer, Zavier Lucero, Terrence Fortea as well as JD Cagulangan.
In fact, it was Cagulangan who played the hero’s role in Game 3 of Season 84 championship when he sank the game-winning trey in overtime.
Still, Baldwin believes that if they can come up with the same game they had against Adamson, they can definitely get a good position to regain the title.
“If we can be a 40-minute team, there’s a lot of quality basketball in this team,” he said.
It won’t be easy though.
UP showed up with a different offensive run against NU as it bounced back from a 67-75 loss to Ateneo to end the eliminations.
The Fighting Maroons are hoping to bring the lessons learned from their previous games into the championship to make a title repeat.
“Since day one of the season, every game, whether it be a win or a loss, we really tried to find things to improve on, and those losses made the team stronger,” Monteverde said.
“It made us communicate more, made us look at even the little things that we need to work on.”
He wants his team to be ready for whatever the Blue Eagles led by Ange Kouame, Forthsky Padrigao, Dave Ildefonso, Kai Ballungay and Chris Koon, will throw at them.
Game 2 is on Wednesday at the Araneta Coliseum.