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HOOPS

UP goes for jugular; Ateneo eyes decider

Game Wednesday:

(Smart Araneta Coliseum)

6 p.m. — Ateneo vs UP

Reigning champion University of the Philippines shoots for the title when it troops back to the court to battle Ateneo de Manila University in Game 2 of Season 85 University Athletic Association of the Philippines men’s basketball tournament best-of-three finals series on Wednesday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

Game time is at 6 p.m. with the Fighting Maroons smelling blood after exposing the Blue Eagles’ failure to adjust to the suffocating defense they employed in the crucial stretch of their 72-66 victory in Game 1 last Sunday at the Mall of Asia Arena.

The Maroons actually had a 10-point lead with under four minutes left but the Eagles refused to surrender and sliced the deficit to just four.

Then, UP unfurled its defensive blanket that sent the high-powered, well-oiled Ateneo offense conking out in the crucial stretch.

“I hope we can put this game away by a good margin. If we can avoid any heroics, that would be nice,” said Zavier Lucero, the wiry forward who served as Fighting Maroons’ defensive linchpin as he swatted away a pair of attempts that could have changed the complexion of the match.

Lucero, who finished with a team-high 14 points, cited the importance of seizing the golden opportunity to defend the title against the same team that they dethroned only last May.

“But whether it’s close or not, we gotta be ready for that and we gotta be poised and calm in that challenge and be able to come out on top no matter what,” said Lucero, who is looking to draw enough support from Most Valuable Player frontrunner Malick Diouf, Carl Tamayo and JD Cagulangan.

“We got a great opportunity so we have to seize that.”

UP coach Goldwin Monteverde agrees, stressing that they should treat the game as if their lives are on the line.

“I guess, we have to play the same way,” said Monteverde, the architect of the Fighting Maroons’ title run in Season 84 that ended their 36-year drought.

“We just won Game 1, it’s just one game. We must address the things we need to improve on and focus on our next game.”

But lifting the trophy is easier said than done.

The Blue Eagles, handled by veteran international mentor Tab Baldwin, will surely come up with key adjustments to force a deciding Game 3 on Monday.

The 64-year-old Baldwin, who coached in countries like New Zealand, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan before landing on Gilas Pilipinas in 2014, admitted that their main concern is how to break the great defensive wall that UP erected in the crucial stretch of the series opener.

“Certainly, we have to figure out ways to compensate for the pressure that they have, I’ve talked about it before, they have those six guards and they’re able to generate that kind of template for a game defensively,” Baldwin said.

“You’ve got to find counters. We thought we had some but we need more.”

The Kiwi-American tactician will rely on Forthsky Padrigao, Ange Kouame, Dave Ildefonso and BJ Andrade to energize the Blue Eagles the same way they did in Game 1.

Starter Kai Ballungay, who was scoreless in the previous game, must also make his presence felt offensively and defensively as well as the rest of Ateneo’s bench, which was outscored by its UP counterpart, 35-15, in Game 1.

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