University of the Philippines kept its perfect record by escaping De La Salle University by the skin of its teeth.
The Fighting Maroons’ sixth straight win may look ugly but head coach Goldwin Monteverde treated it as a great test of character and learning experience for his wards heading into Sunday’s big showdown against defending champion Ateneo de Manila University at the end of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines Season 86 men’s basketball tournament first round.
“They really need this kind of game to grow as a team,” Monteverde said following UP’s 67-64 victory over the Green Archers last Wednesday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
A flat start saw UP get into a precarious spot but a defensive clinic in the third quarter helped the Fighting Maroons outscore La Salle, 21-3, to take control of the match.
UP also got tested in the fourth quarter, engaging La Salle in a back-and-forth affair before taking a 67-64 lead with 2.9 seconds left.
CJ Cansino then scored a defensive gem after stealing the ball off the Green Archers’ inbounds to keep the Fighting Maroons’ momentum going ahead of the much-anticipated faceoff between the two squad’s that figured in the finals of the last two seasons.
“For the team, we treat every game whether we win by a huge margin or a close game, we’ll always take that as a learning experience for us,” Monteverde said.
“Especially now that our team is a mix of veterans and young guys.”
Compared to Ateneo, who lost a lot of veterans in its championship core, the Fighting Maroons are enjoying the benefit of a deep bench with Monteverde getting production from different faces each game.
Against La Salle, Gerry Abadiano, Harold Alarcon and reigning Most Valuable Player Malick Diouf did all the damage. But UP also has the likes of JD Cagulangan, Cansino, Francis Lopez and Reyland Torres who can deliver the goods when their numbers are called.
However, Monteverde downplayed the finals rematch.
“Honestly, I haven’t thought much about Ateneo,” he said.
“But as all teams, every time we’re playing against them, we’re really gonna prepare for them.”
“That rematch, actually, we will face them twice in the elimination round so we don’t want to think too much about it. What is important on our part would be to first try to be healthy before Sunday, have that rest, and prepare.”
The UP-Ateneo match is set at 4 p.m. at the MOA Arena following the 1 p.m. encounter between Far Eastern University and winless University of Santo Tomas.