THROWBACK: Unforgettable Ateneo-La Salle clashes in past UAAP Finals

Gerry Plaza on Oct 06, 2018 08:56 AM
Unforgettable Ateneo-La Salle clashes in past UAAP Finals
Jeron Teng was instrumental in leading the De La Salle Green Archers to their 2016 title conquest over the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

Since the Final Four format was implemented in 1994, storied rivals Ateneo de Manila University and De La Salle University have won the most number of UAAP Men's Seniors Basketball titles with 7 apiece (Far Eastern University and the University of Santo Tomas have won 5 each while National Univeristy won it in 2014) .   

Through the years, their Finals confrontations, however, were more than just your typical collegiate war. It had always been personal, emotional, and fiercely and intensely fought.

Last year was no exception as the Eagles and Archers went at it for the sixth time in their head-to-head in the UAAP Season 80 Finals.

Their face-off has truly been much anticipated and sensational, just like in the five 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.

Here is a retelling of the bitter nemeses’ six previous UAAP Finals face-offs to achieve collegiate basketball glory.

1988

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 elimination round. 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.

2001

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.

2002

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.”

2008

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.

2016

With their fifth meeting in the Finals, it seemed like a repeat of the 2002 season in the events going to Finals.

La Salle, now coached by the celebrated ex-Letran coach Aldin Ayo, 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.”

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, under the tutelage of Tab Baldwin, is definitely not a pushover as they totally earned the right to face La Salle with its grueling, hard-fought victories. Thirdy Ravena provided 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.

The Archers upended the Falcons of Adamson University in just one game in the Final Four yet the Eagles, despite its twice to beat advantage, had to go through two tough encounters with the FEU Tamaraws in their own series.

Game 1 commenced with an expected La Salle blowout behind the graduating Jeron Teng, Ben Mbala and Aljun Melecio, with a 19-6 lead at the end of the first quarter, controlling 15-point leads until the Eagles slowly inched closer with a mere 10-point deficit at the half, 36-26.

But the Eagles made a spirited comeback in the third as Aaron Black, Thirdy Ravena and Matt Nieto leading the blistering run, ending the quarter at 52-all.

With the game going perilously close, the upset threat became so real for La Salle after Nieto drained a go-ahead basket for Ateneo, 65-64, with 34 ticks left.

But guess who took matters in his own hands? Teng provided the clutch basket with 15 seconds left before blocking a Black attempt for a game-winner. Montalbo then split his charities off a desperation foul as time expired to win, 67-65.

With just a victory away from its ninth UAAP, the Archers again broke away in the first half of Game 2, commanding with a 19-point lead at one point before settling for a 45-35 halftime lead. But unlike Game 1, La Salle clearly controlled the game with their leads reaching 14 points in the third quarter, while frustrating Ateneo’s attempts for a rally, which even dwindled the Archer lead to four going into the final minute.

But the “Mayhem” mentality was just too much for the Eagles, as the Archers again behind the heroics of Teng, Mbala and Melecio, stood their ground to protect their lead and copped the Season 79 championship.

2017

In Season 80, the tables were turned as Ateneo became the clearly dominant team at the start of the season with La Salle playing catch-up. The Blue Eagles had also upended the Archers, 76-75, with a Matt Nieto game winner in the first round that they thought would pave the way for an eliminations sweep.

And, of all teams, it was La Salle that denied Ateneo a sweep and an outright Finals berth in their second round face-off. Kib Montalbo’s go-ahead with 40 seconds left and Ricci Rivero’s heads-up play in the endgame, drilling two charities and blocking an Anton Asistio three-point attempt in the endgame, led to a dramatic Archers win, 79-76, to force a Final Four round.

The Final Four playoffs were eerily similar to the previous year. Twice to beat La Salle won over Adamson, 82-75, in just one game while Ateneo bled for its Finals berth after losing to FEU, 80-67, in the first game and needed a late overtime run by Nieto and Isaac Go, 88-84, in the second deciding match to arrange their sixth Finals match against La Salle.

In Game 1, the Blue Eagles were very much prepared in making up for that heartbreaking loss in their previous game. No, they won’t be denied and the game plan was clear: Stop Big Ben Mbala, whose frustration over the team defense towards him was evident in an inadvertent elbow on Matt Nieto, by the end of the first half, with Ateneo leading 43-39.

While it was a close third frame, the Blue Eagles pulled away with a decisive spurt at the middle of fourth, making it a 10-point lead, 69-59. But Aljun Melecio led La Salle with a spirited rally towards the homestretch, cutting the lead to a solitary basket, 70-71, with 2:32 to go. But that was all they could produce for the remainder of the game. After Thirdy Ravena scored a putback off an Anton Asistio miss, Ricci Rivero and Melecio failed to convert in succeeding plays that led to that memorable dish off by the driving Ravena to Isaac Go, who nailed the undergoal stab and 1 drawing Kib Montalbo’s third foul with 10 seconds left as Ateneo took Game 1, 76-70.

And in Game 2, it seemed it was all in the bag for Ateneo after that morale-boosting Game 1 win. The Eagles soared to a 21-point lead in the second quarter behind a scorching offense led by Asistio  But, then La Salle buckled down to business, especially Mbala who regained his form. The Cameroonian star’s slam ignited a comeback, moving the Archers to within nine at the half, 51-42. Ateneo’s meltdown continued in the third frame, as Rivero and Mbala conspired to give La Salle the lead 60-58, limiting the Eagles to only eight points in the quarter. La Salle never looked back as they cruised to a 92-83 Game 2 win to even the series.

The decider had vestiges of Game 2 with Ateneo erecting an early double digit lead then La Salle staging a high-octane rally. And by the end of the third quarter, it was all back to square one at 68-all. But in the final canto, it showed that the Eagles wanted the title more, especially Ravena who ruled the offensive boards in partnership with Chibueze Ikeh.  This led to booming triples from marksmen Matt Nieto and Asistio that made their lead balloon to ten, 80-70, off a 14-2 run. But La Salle would never give up, as Melecio, Mbala, and Andrei Caracut conspired for their own 10-2 spurt to make it just a two-point game, 82-80, 48 seconds left.

Then, off a timeout, Ravena crashed through the lane spotting Go open from beyond the arc on a pick and pop. And, without any hesitation, Go released it on a catch-and-shoot. And it swooshed in, giving Ateneo what seemed to be an insurmountable 85-80 spread, with 24 ticks left.

Asistio then split his charities off a Caracut foul to make it 86-80. A quick three by Melecio still kept it within three before Nieto put the game out of the Green Archers’ reach with two free throws, 88-83. While Caracut scored a three at the buzzer, it had no weight on the outcome as Ateneo dethroned La Salle and won its first UAAP seniors basketball title since Season 75.

Their confrontations on the court are definitely storied and unforgettable. And this is especially true in the UAAP Finals, wherein their face-offs are always intensely fought. Their next chapter in battling for the coveted crown is something we eagerly await whenever it will be.

Catch the UAAP Season 81 Men's Basketball first round encounter between Ateneo de Manila University and De La Salle University starting 3:45 p.m. LIVE on S+A Channel 23, S+A HD Channel 167 and worldwide via livestream and YouTube

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