WORDS by Miguel Caramoan
Public service announcement to all UAAP fans: Get acclimatized with UP and Ateneo classics. They are bound to stay that way.
Whether you were rooting for the Fighting Maroons or for the Blue Eagles, we can all agree that every fan that watched the game came out as winners. It was always a treat to watch Ateneo’s precise execution on offense. On the other hand, UP’s aggressive defense became their bread and butter that propelled them to last season’s championship. These contrasting styles made their match-up more interesting and was a matter of which adjustment would pan out well.
Coming into the much-awaited Finals rematch, both squads had already faced some roadblocks in the early stages of Season 85. The Fighting Maroons suffered its first defeat prior to their game last Sunday against the NU Bulldogs that put their record to 3-1. While the Blue Eagles also sport the same record, with their solitary loss coming from arch nemesis and perennial contenders DLSU Green Archers. With parity evident this season, a win for either of the teams would be important as they jockey positions in a tougher competition.
And from the get-go, the intensity was on.
The whole game pretty much went back and forth. Familiarity was evident from both sides, as this was already the sixth meeting of two of the best bald coaches in the country (LOL). New heroes rose to the occasion. Old (and comebacking) reliables stepped up anew to lead their team. No team led by double digits. In short, this game had all you’d asked for.
Just like the aforementioned point earlier, UP banked on its defense with the advantage they possessed in terms of their length to salvage a subpar offensive half they had. According to Stats by Ryan, the Fighting Maroons had the best defensive rating as of this writing (after the Ateneo game) of 87.1 DRTG. Here’s some of his clips that exemplify the thought:
A big boost for UP was the return of point guard JD Cagulangan. It was only fitting for Cagulangan to come back and play debut this Season 85 against the team he made sad (sorry, Ateneo fans). His steadying presence was sorely missed by the Fighting Maroons that he made sure to put an imprint on this game, finishing the game with 7 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists in 27 minutes of play. Not to bring war flashbacks, but peep at this specific shot of Cagulangan. Yes, it looked familiar.
Of course, we should not forget the guy named Carl Tamayo. Literally, Ateneo had no answers defending him at the post on a single coverage. Tamayo didn’t care if Kai Ballungay or Joshua Lazaro was in position, he knew his overpowering strength was enough to score over them. But what made the Gilas mainstay lethal was his ability to locate wide open teammates when being doubled. He then finished with an impressive statline of 20 points, 13 rebounds, and 3 assists in 33 minutes played.
Another player that shouldn’t get unnoticed was the performance of James Spencer. After averaging only 4.3 points in the first four games of UP, Spencer finally broke out of that funk and produced 14 points on 50% shooting from the field, which was a much needed punch offensively combined with solid perimeter defense he provides.
But Ateneo was able to keep pace because of their relentless gang rebounding that enabled them to have scoring opportunities. They even won the rebounding battle, 56 to 46. Dave Ildefonso gave them a lift scoring-wise in the first half and throughout the game, although being forced by the Fighting Maroons’ defense to a lot of contested shots. Plus the turnover issues of UP, it was the reason why Ateneo was ahead by five going into the second half and were able to claw their way back to force extra time.
Another storyline present was, once again, the Fighting Maroons were down to start the second half. Even though it’s a popular opinion that cramming doesn’t work in anything we do, this formula has worked for UP in three of their first four games. But the bright spot to look at—the hill that they need to climb wasn’t as high in the previous games (-10 vs NU and -16 vs Adamson). So even without the UP patented run, the game was not far-fetched.
Defensively, UP did turn up a notch in the second half and was reminiscent of what worked in Season 84’s Finals. The Fighting Maroons deployed a blitz as their pick-and-roll coverage, essentially trapping or double-teaming the ball handler. A good thing is that UP has the personnel as they have mobile bigs like Zav Lucero and Malick Diouf partnered with good defensive guards and wings like Gerry Abadiano and James Spencer. With the clear lack of depth of guards for the Blue Eagles, it became exhausting for the main primary and secondaries like Padrigao, Andrade and Ildefonso to face such pressure.
Ateneo had a last ditch stand with a 7-0 run to end the regulation, thanks to Forth Padrigao coming alive in the fourth quarter and in overtime, scoring nine of his 15 points in that span. Nothing more important was his game-tying triple that made the Ateneo crowd go bonkers.
This effort of Ateneo went for naught as UP closed the game out well, again through their exemplary defense. Carl Tamayo provided timely baskets in the clutch. Malick Diouf’s defensive tentacles were too much to handle.
Even though four of the last five meetings favored the side of the Fighting Maroons, to say that they are the more definitive team over the Blue Eagles is still up for debate. Margins are so close that some alterations to it, the other squad may have won. And again to reiterate, the way both teams operate feels like a chess match, which only bodes well to the experience as a fan and the basketball knowledge it imparts through all those wrinkles they throw at one another.
It was also a game that flaunted the vulnerabilities where they could still improve along the season. UP’s defense remains elite, but offensively, the team needs more polishing on how they can generate scoring in the halfcourt. For Ateneo, after their core guys Kouame, Ildefonso, and Padrigao), where could the help come from? Best believe, when they meet again in the second round, the answers to these issues might be known.
The first iteration of the Battle of Katipunan this Season 85 was as good as advertised. As someone who witnessed it for the first time inside the MOA Arena, this made me realize how much fun UAAP really is. Round 2 is about to be lit. Watch out!
[Photos by Vyn Radovan]