In the rematch of last season’s finalists, the University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons once again proved steadier in the clutch after escaping with a 76-71 overtime victory over the Ateneo Blue Eagles. We all expected a dog fight from start to finish and that’s exactly what we got. The Universities Athletics Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Season 84 finals series between these two schools is considered one of the best of all time in college hoops after all three games were all tightly contested, with Games 1 and 3 needing extra periods. And so, when the first meeting between UP and Ateneo in Season 85 came, another fierce basketball joust was almost guaranteed.
It was indeed a see-saw contest all throughout, with neither team leading by more than seven points at any point of the match. The Maroons started the ballgame with superb execution of their offense, scoring basket after basket with precise passes to cutters in the paint. It was clear to me from the get-go that UP coach Goldwyn Monteverde came prepared for another chess match with the great Tab Baldwin. And the Maroons’ offense showed some cracks in the vaunted Ateneo defense right in the opening quarter, which UP won 18-14. But in the second period, the Blue Eagles caught fire, outscoring (and outworking) the Maroons, 24-15, with more accurate outside sniping and second-chance baskets to end the first half in the driver’s seat, 38-33.
In the second half, both teams stepped up on their defense big time. The Maroons again were the more precise team with their offense, winning the third period, 20-16. But it was their defense that impressed me more, making life very difficult for the Eagles with their stifling pressure defense and rock solid interior D. As good as their offense is, the Blue Eagles bled for every basket, with very little wide-open shots. The Maroons were not only great with their team defensive tactics. They were also exemplary with their individual defensive assignments. The third quarter ended with Ateneo up, 54-53.
In the payoff period, both squads upped the ante in defense even more. There was a long stretch when neither team could hit its mark. In the last ten minutes of regulation, UP could only score 11 markers and Ateneo just 10. 64-all. In all four quarters, both the Maroons and the Eagles had their shining moments as well as forgettable stages. Then came the extra five minutes.
The overtime period clearly belonged to the defending champs. And it was their defense that did it for them. Save for some clutch long bombs from Dave Ildefonso and Rence Padrigao, the Blue Eagles had their work cut out for them in offense, with almost zero opportunities for inside points. And in endgame, the Maroons forced the Eagles into costly turnovers, again with their defensive pressure. After the extra period, Ateneo only managed to score seven points, while the Maroons tallied 12.
Looking at the numbers, UP shot better from the field, 35.2% to Ateneo’s 30.3%. It’s not easy to constrict the Blue Eagles’ scoring, especially that they run a very systematic offense that’s built on ball movement and a sterling ability to read the defense. But UP did their homework. The biggest disparity was in the points inside the paint, 38-22, for UP. As mentioned earlier, the Maroons were efficient with their inside passes for easy lay-ups. In contrast, the Eagles struggled to get inside baskets off their offensive sets even with the bull-strong Ange Kouame on the floor. UP also had more fast break points, 12-2. The silver lining for Ateneo in this game is their strength off the boards, winning the rebounding battle versus the taller UP five, 56-46, including 18 offensive caroms. From the offensive rebounds, the Blue Eagles got 18 second-chance points as opposed to the Maroons’ six.
There’s really a lot of things to appreciate from the game. Obviously, both Ateneo and UP are elite when it comes to college basketball with their high-level talent and basketball programs. We can expect a lot of adjustments when these two squads dance again in the second round. Expect also the Maroons to get better as the season progresses. They surely learned from their bitter loss to National University last week. But more players are likely to step up for UP, making them more dangerous than ever. As for Ateneo, the Eagles will lick their wounds and come out stronger from this defeat. We can all agree that Baldwin is the master of adjustments and he will surely find a way to patch up the little cracks in the Blue Eagles’ A-1 basketball system and make it look like brand new.
Round 1 of the Battle of Katipunan goes to UP.
Jude Roque is a basketball coach who spent most of his coaching years in college hoops. He is a former assistant coach of the Gilas National Team. He is also a sports analyst for PBA games.