FLASHBACK: Unforgettable Ateneo-La Salle clashes in past UAAP Finals
Gerry Plaza on Dec 02, 2016 10:21 AM
Ateneo so far has the upper hand over La Salle in their four previous UAAP Finals meetings.It all came down to this—nothing less than that storied rivalry in collegiate sports taking center stage in the UAAP Finals.
We witnessed a contrasting journey—with the strong and merciless De La Salle Green Archers menacingly barreling their way through the competition with its mayhem, and easily taking the first Finals seat. Their fierce rivals Ateneo Blue Eagles, on the other hand, had a painstaking journey from an uphill yet sure climb to its moment of glory, highlighted by handing La Salle its solitary loss in the eliminations and booting out the defending champion FEU Tamaraws in the just concluded Final Four.
Their face-off is truly much-anticipated and sensational, just like in the four previous times they met in the Finals. Not only faithful alumni and students would bleed Green or Blue, but likewise an entire nation of basketball-crazy fans mesmerized by the passion and pride.
When the Blue Eagles and Green Archers meet in the UAAP Finals, Ateneo evidently carried itself through much better having won three of those four epic battles.
Ateneo was the celebrated defending champions that year, and La Salle was the phenomenal team on the rise only two years after joining the UAAP. The nucleus of the Blue Eagles champion team was intact, except for the graduated Nonoy Chuatico. And La Salle had recruited the best Youth players in the country, including Johndel Cardel and Jun Limpot.
Naturally their face-off in the Finals was a foregone conclusion, as both squads dominated the eliminations. But in their second round encounter to determine the team to gain the twice-to-beat advantage in the finals, Ateneo won the crucial game via a 73-72 squeaker.
And their first Finals meeting in the UAAP happened on a drizzling afternoon, when tickets had been the hottest item in town. Scalpers had a field day clandestinely selling tickets at P35,000 for a lower box seat at the oven-hot Rizal Coliseum.
While La Salle had erected a 21-11 halftime lead behind Dindo Pumaren’s incursions, Ateneo buckled down to business in the ensuing half with centers Danny Francisco and Alex Araneta with forward Eric Reyes delivering on a surprise motion offense salvo, under playmaker King Eagle Jun Reyes, to equalize at 66-all.
La Salle’s woes continued after Blue Eagle shooting guard Joseph Canlas led a blistering 8-2 run that put the Blue Eagles on top 74-68 in the last two minutes. Since then, the Green Archers were held scoreless from the field and could only muster two points from Pumaren’s charities off a Jett Nieto foul. Since then, Ateneo played the clock. In the final four seconds, Green Archer forward Joey Santamaria fouled Francisco, who calmly sank the two free throws, settling the final score, 76-70, and Ateneo clinching its back-to-back UAAP title.
Since the 1988 Finals, La Salle had gone on a roll, winning back to back championships in 1989 and 1990 with Limpot and Cardel at the helm and a three peat from 1998-2000, behind the exploits of Ren-Ren Ritualo and Don Allado and the wizardry of coach Franz Pumaren, who engineered this dynasty.
For Ateneo, however, their “dark ages” in basketball competition engulfed the horizon. A title drought ensued, as they failed to field a squad to measure up to the giants of the 90s era, notably UST, FEU, and quite hurtful for them, La Salle. Until 2001, when a player build-up had reached its summit, with center Enrico Villanueva, power forward Rich Alvarez, wingman Larry Fonacier and prized rookie LA Tenorio leading the Eagle pack. Ateneo was a title contender once more, thanks to the guidance of its legendary coach Joe Lipa.
And for the first time in 13 years, they’re back in the UAAP Finals and against the same team they last fought in 1988, bitter rivals La Salle. Ateneo sought to end the dark ages with its first title in more than a decade and La Salle extending its championship run to a four-peat.
It was like a role reversal from 1988 Finals—Ateneo would now lead by 11 markers at halftime of their rubber match behind Rich Alvarez’s heroics, most notably shackling the King Archer Ritualo. And, as the second half began, La Salle would stage an incredible comeback with Ritualo finding his mark and sank consecutive baskets from the perimeter and the 3-point arc.
While they did stretch La Salle to the distance, behind the rookie Tenorio’s 30 points, the Eagles simply could not contain Ritualo’s blitzkrieg and Carlo Sharma’s finest 22-game performance and eventually bowed to La Salle, 93-88. Indeed, it was a fitting send-off to the graduating Ritualo, who led the Archers to a rare four-peat.
After that heartbreaking loss to La Salle in the 2001 Finals, Ateneo had only one thing in mind: bring the UAAP title to Katipunan. And get it at the expense of La Salle, who was now seeking a historic five-peat.
With Villanueva opting to remain in the roster to reach the full extent of his eligibility, the Blue Eagles had an intact lineup with the exception of the re-inclusion of forward Wesley Gonzales, who failed to make the cut in the 2001 roster, and the exit of sharpshooter Magnum Membrere and slotman Paolo Bugia, who both tore their anterior cruciate ligaments in the Eagles’ pre-season outing in the Philippine Basketball League under Hapee Toothpaste.
It was the year La Salle was so formidable, even without Ritualo and Allado in its roster that it almost swept the eliminations and wiped out the Final Four with an instant Finals slot under the auspices of the brilliant backcourt triumvirate of Mike Cortez, Joseph Yeo and Mac Cardona. But guess who spoiled the Archer party? A rising Ateneo team, behind a redeemed Gonzales and bench player Andrew Cruz, who stopped a La Salle sweep at the end of eliminations with a shocking 83-71 win.
This pulled La Salle back into a Final Four battle against UST, which it easily beat with its twice-to-beat edge, and immediately barged into the Finals. But Ateneo faced contrasting uphill battle against upstart UE, which boasted of such big names as James Yap, Ronald Tubid, Paul Artadi, and a rookie named Nino Canaleta. But it seemed the Eagles showed a bigger desire to claim a Finals seat, as they amazingly beat the Red Warriors twice to enter the Finals as well, capped by “The Shot,” the game-winning jumper by guard Gec Chia at the buzzer of Game 2.
A third “Dream Series” between Ateneo and La Salle in the UAAP Finals was now a reality. Both teams had split the first two games of their Best of Three going into a winner-take-all Game 3.
It was a nip-and-tuck affair in the first few minutes as Villanueva and his buddy ex-Eaglet, now La Salle starter BJ Manalo exchanging baskets. But when the Eagle defense steadied and muted the Archers’ offensive rotation, Chia and a visibly ill Fonacier conspired for a 6-0 run at the buzzer to end the first quarter with a 23-17 Ateneo lead.
Manalo waxed hot in the next quarter but the Eagles showed even scoring and perfectly executed plays that allowed Chia and Gonzales to deliver and mount a 33-27 lead for the Blue Eagles. Gonzales would then score an additional 10 points towards the end of the half to stretch the lead to 12, 40-28. But the Archers fought back with Cardona and Adonis Sta. Maria teaming up for a 9-2 run at the end of the half to cut the Eagle lead to five, 42-37.
By the third quarter, Ateneo remained composed and collared La Salle with its sticky defense. Alvarez, Fonacier and Villanueva made their presence felt on the shaded lane to give Ateneo a 56-52 lead going into the deciding fourth quarter.
And, indeed, Ateneo wouldn’t be denied. LA Tenorio swished two consecutive triples and Gonzales hitting from under the rim to start the final canto with an imposing 64-54 lead, seven minutes remaining.
But the champion team that it is, La Salle won’t be denied a good fight. The Archers fought back with a 6-2 run, capped by a Cortez triple, that placed La Salle into breathing distance—66-60, five minutes to go.
Then it was in these last five minutes Ateneo realized that its dream was coming to fulfillment—with Alvarez limiting Cortez’s movements with his brazen defense, La Salle seemed to have a few offensive options left. But for Ateneo, it was their moment of glory. With a resurrected Sonny Tadeo delivering clutch baskets and Epok Quimpo, who came in for a fouled out Tenorio, hitting a crucial trey, the Blue Eagles seemed unreachable with a 73-62 lead with 1:42 left.
Sta. Maria never gave up and scored on a putback to cut the lead to nine. Sensing Sta. Maria’s intensity, Gonzales took his defense a notch higher in trying to deny La Salle’s hardworking slotman. Gonzales would block what could have been Sta. Maria’s emphatic, monstrous dunk that could have rallied the Archers into a comeback.
Since then, the Archers lost the intensity and fire that lit them up through the past four seasons as league champions. And it was all just a matter of time before Ateneo finally took home its first UAAP title in 13 years, with a 77-70 championship win, in a season they would call “unforgettable.”
Another chapter of the storied rivalry will not happen until six years after when coach Norman Black has taken the reigns in the Ateneo bench.
But in the race to the Finals, it was pretty clear who were the title favorites. And, unlike their previous championship runs, it seemed this Blue Eagle squad had the makings of a scintillating dynasty. With only a solitary loss in the hands of FEU, Ateneo’s 13-1 win-loss slate truly shows a portent of things to come, even in the Finals.
Even if it was defending champions La Salle, its storied rivals it last faced in 2002, as the remaining stumbling block.
Again it was a center who showed the way for Ateneo, Rabeh Al-Hussaini, in the Best-of-Three Final series. Al-Hussaini scored almost half of the entire output of the Blue Eagles, 31 points mostly in the second half, in Ateneo’s 69-62 victory in Game 1 over the Archers despite JV Casio’s heroic efforts for a late comeback.
After winning, the Blue Eagles wanted the title so bad that it sought sweep the series. And a 24-9 run in the opening minutes and another 8-0 attack by the end of the first half behind Chris Tiu, Nonoy Baclao and Ryan Buenafe, brought the Blue Eagles to the brink of its first title in six years, with a 41-26 halftime lead.
But the do-it-all Casio won’t be denied. He instigated a 21-9 run capped by six three-pointers to cut the lead to three points.
In the end, Al-Hussaini, Tiu and Baclao contained the La Salle surge with nifty transition plays and gritty defense on Casio, Simon Atkins and Rico Maierhofer, who was ejected for allegedly flashing a dirty finger, which the La Salle slotman denied. With Casio fouling out in the last two minutes and the entire team distracted by what they assumed as spotty officiating, being called for 29 fouls in the game, it offered little resistance to the rampaging Eagles, who annexed their fourth UAAP title, 61-51, with the last three all against their bitter rivals.
Now, with their fifth meeting in the Finals, it seemed like a repeat of the 2002 season in the events going to Finals.
La Salle is the league leading superpower and Ateneo, the amazing overachievers. Ateneo also denied La Salle a sweep of the eliminations and has won a bruising Final Four series to arrange yet another chapter of the Finals “Dream Series.”
How will it turn out remains to be seen, even though Ateneo had upset their rivals in the 2002 series. Will it happen again?
With La Salle as the hands-down favorites with Big Ben Mbala and Abu Tratter manning the frontline with a prolific Jeron Teng playing his final season and reliables Kib Montalbo, Andrei Curacut and Thomas Torres, and sensational rookies Aljun Melecio, Justine Baltazar and Ricci Rivero proving their worth in coach Aldin Ayo’s effective system of play.
But Ateneo is definitely not a pushover as they totally earned the right to face La Salle with its grueling, hard-fought victories. Thirdy Ravena is sure to provide the scoring might in the void left by his brother Kiefer. Mike Nieto, Adrian Wong, Vince Tolentino, Isaac Go, and the rising Aaron Black would certainly offer no less than a solid opposition to debunk that Archer invincibility as it did during the eliminations. As what coaching consultant Tab Baldwin said in the post-game interview after beating FEU on Wednesday, “We’ll be ready.”
For both squads, it’s a streak towards their ninth overall UAAP basketball crown, a championship that would break their ongoing tie of eight titles each in the league.
How can a rivalry become more hostile and fiercer than that? It’s a war we can’t wait to witness.