This vibrant Universities Athletics Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Season 85 men’s basketball tournament will come to its conclusion on Monday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum when the reigning titlists University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons try to repeat over the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) Blue Eagles in Game 3 of their best-of-three championship series. UP took Game 1, 72-66, after the Maroons put the clamps on Ateneo’s offense and used their bench depth advantage to the hilt. But in Game 2, the Blue Eagles totally took the Maroons out of their game and evened the series with a 65-55 victory. Game 3 should be a rip-roaring contest between two of the very best college hoops teams today as they gun for all the marbles.
Here are what we can expect from both the Eagles and Maroons.
UP Fighting Maroons
Step on the gas pedal
In Game 1, UP was evidently the more aggressive and energetic squad. The Maroons’ relentless pressure defense and up-tempo offense were the biggest keys to their victory in the series opener as they forced ADMU to 15 turnovers and scored a total of 23 transition markers (fast break and turnover points). In Game 2, their transition offense was stymied by the Eagles as they were good for only eight fast break points. Ateneo also forced them into 18 turnovers. But clearly, UP’s advantage is in speed and bench depth. If they engage Ateneo into a more deliberate contest, the Maroons are likely to lose. And so, we can expect the UP side to go full speed with its transition attacks in Game 3.
Be physical on Padrigao
So far in this series, only Forthsky Padrigao has shown poise and brilliance at the point guard position for Ateneo. This task is crucial for the Blue and White because they draw a lot of their success on offense from the steady playmaking of their court generals. However, with no stable back-up, the sophomore guard from Zamboanga City tends to lose steam and cramp up in the payoff period, especially after having to endure heavy pressure from the opponents’ other guards. UP coach Goldwyn Monteverde knows this very well, which is why we can expect him to rotate up to four players to pressure and get physical on Padrigao. And why not? He’s got the luxury of having several capable guards to assume this job – JD Cagulangan, Terrence Fortea, Gerry Abadiano, and even RC Calimag, who logged over four minutes in Game 2.
Extend its bench more
I said this before, and I’ll say it again – this UP team (since Season 84) has the deepest bench in Philippine college basketball history. You can disagree with me but the Maroons clearly have the bench depth advantage over the Eagles this year. But in Game 2 when they lost, only nine Maroons saw action for at least ten minutes. Calimag played for less than five minutes, while Bismarck Lina stepped on the floor for under a minute only. To sustain their fast-paced game, Monteverde needs to dig deeper into his bench and draw quality minutes from his third group, even just to apply their vaunted pressure D on ADMU. This way, UP can have its main guns fresh in the latter part of the game, where they can execute the offense better. Henry Galinato should see more playing minutes in Game 3 because of the absence of Zavier Lucero. Due to his impressive outing in the series, he probably deserves more action time. Cyril Gonzales is another gem for UP, who could be relied upon on both ends of the court.
Set up the shooters
UP has so many deadly snipers in its roster. But their ammunition has not been on fire as expected in this series. In Game 1, the Maroons hit just 6-of-26 from downtown even when they got the win. James Spencer, a reliable outside shooter in the elims, was only good for five points on 2-of-6 from the field. Game 2 wasn’t so much different as UP unleashed 6-of-30 from behind the three-point line. Spencer, who played for over 24 minutes, was off-target and only produced one measly point. For the State U to successfully defend its crown, it cannot just rely on its transition game. The Maroons also need to execute their half-court offense and not rush their shots. A big key in their offense is when their gunners are set up well for a shot. Maybe in Game 3, Spencer, Cagulangan, Fortea, Abadiano, and Alarcon will shoot better from long-distance. This would mean big trouble for Ateneo.
Unleash the JD-Carl duo
In this winner-take-all encounter, the stage is set for another showcase of exceptional basketball talent from the teams’ top guns. Just like last season, Carl Tamayo and Cagulangan are likely to step up and save the day for UP in Game 3. In crunch time, expect these two to carry the scoring load for the Fighting Maroons as Season MVP Malick Diouf takes care of the defense. In Game 1, this dynamic duo combined for 17 markers. In Game 2, they totaled 26. When the game is on the line, these two will take charge. And as proven last season, they are more than capable of hitting the big shots in endgame.
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Ateneo Blue Eagles
Match UP’s physicality
Game 1 was an eye-opener for Ateneo. UP played tough, physical defense on the Blue Eagles, which got them off their rhythm. But in Game 2, the Loyola-based crew came prepared for the physicality and immense pressure defense, and came out victorious. Ange Kouame was solid in Game 2, sizzling with 19 points on top of eleven rebounds and three blocks. But the big difference was rookie Kainoa Ballungay, who bounced back from a scoreless (and only two rebounds) performance in Game 1 and contributed 15 points and five boards plus one block to Ateneo’s cause. In Game 1, Ballungay was clearly uneasy, firing blanks and seemingly affected by UP’s physicality, especially in the shaded area. But Kouame can’t do it all alone and he rose to the occasion to help ADMU force the rubber match.
Padrigao will also need to be ready, both physically and mentally, in handling the physicality and pressure D. A lot of Ateneo’s chances for a title will fall heavily on his ability to withstand the overwhelming pressure from the Maroons’ side.
Sprint down on D
If the Blue Eagles manage to slow down UP’s accelerated offense, that’s half the battle won. The Fighting Maroons thrive on a running game that’s so hard to stall. They are not only so skilled but also so well-conditioned and physically gifted to outrun any team. Of course, the deep bench is also a humongous edge for UP as they can afford to rotate more players and maintain fresh legs on the floor. There really is no other solution for Ateneo but to have enough defenders sprinting down to prevent the Maroons from scoring in transition. They can have Kouame and Ballungay trying to grab the offensive boards but have the other three players scooting to the other side to arrest UP’s attempt for an early offense.
Control the boards
Ateneo is the smaller team in this match-up, surprisingly. But a huge blow to the Maroons’ camp is the ACL injury sustained by star sophomore Zavier Lucero in Game 2. The 6’7” recruit from Northern California was the biggest thorn in the side of Ateneo in Game 1, topscoring for the Maroons with 14 points, hauling down eleven caroms, and making the timely blocks to keep the Eagles at bay. Before he went down in Game 2, Lucero already had six markers, eleven boards, two dimes, a block, and a steal. Without him, the Eagles should have an easier time matching up with UP’s bigs.
Rebounding is another key for victory for both teams. In Game 1, UP won the battle of the boards, 45-39. It was dead even, 44-44, in Game 2. But in Game 1, Ateneo allowed UP to corral 17 offensive rebounds that turned into 13 second-chance points. Kouame, Ballungay, Matthew Daves, Josh Lazaro, Geo Chiu, and even wing players like Dave Ildefonso and Chris Koon must help out in securing the rebounds, which is critical in Game 3. They should also anticipate a strong comeback from Diouf, who only had one field goal in over 16 minutes in Game 2. Remember, he was the Season 84 Finals MVP too.
Get quality minutes from other guards
Padrigao cannot play 40 minutes of quality basketball, especially when UP’s stifling defense will be focusing on him. He needs some time to breathe and rest his legs. But coach Tab Baldwin will need to draw the best output from his other guards in order to afford Forthsky some relief. Koon, Vince Gomez, BJ Andrada, and Paul Garcia will need to be up for the task of taking the playmaking chores when Padrigao is on the bench. This could be the answer to beating UP. The Eagles will need a well-rested Padrigao in the last ten minutes of play.
Execute the plays better
Even the prolific Baldwin offensive system struggled against the different defensive schemes of UP. Apart from the ability to employ stupendous pressure defense, the Maroons are also great in scouting their opponents’ plays and tendencies. They were prepared to counter the offensive actions of the Eagles in Game 1. We can expect Monteverde to come up with other defensive tactics to perplex the Eagles’ plays. But knowing Baldwin, Ateneo will be simulating different defensive ploys in practice and find their areas of vulnerability. His experience of coaching extensively in the international arena, including in Europe, has exposed the New Zealand-American to several different defenses, which he has also learned to offset. Under Baldwin, Ateneo has been highly successful because of the unpredictability of their offense, and also because of their ability to read the defense.
A big part of the offense is the pick and roll, which is also an area that UP’s defense has focused on. Expect the Eagles to make some fine tuning in their ball screen actions to foil UP’s defensive strategies. Getting the ball to Kouame off his roll, opening up the lane for Padrigao to penetrate, and setting up Ildefonso wide open for an outside shot are all vital to Ateneo’s offensive executions. Speaking of Ildefonso, it’s about time he makes his presence felt in the finals. The former Gilas guard only accounted for ten points in Game 1, in 3-of-12 shooting and over 35 minutes of action. He was worse in Game 2, with just three points in almost 27 minutes. But Dave will always have the green light to shoot. He just needs the offense to work for him and get him good looks at the basket. If he scores around the 15-point mark, it would be a huge boost to ADMU’s title hopes.
I wouldn’t miss this Game 3 for anything.