More than just stand­ings

The Philippine Star - - SPORTS - By JOAQUIN M. HEN­SON

When­ever Ate­neo and La Salle clash, it doesn’t mat­ter what their stand­ings are in the UAAP men’s bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment. There’s more to the bat­tle than just how they’re po­si­tioned in the lad­der. Their ri­valry goes back to decades ago and while stu­dents, fac­ulty, alumni, coaches and play­ers them­selves from both schools may be bud­dies off the court, it’s a war on the hard­wood as soon as the game clock starts tick­ing.

To­day, the Blue and the Green will face off in the sec­ond round of elim­i­na­tions at the Smart Araneta Coli­seum. Ate­neo is on top of the heap with a 10-2 record while La Salle oc­cu­pies third spot at 8-4. With the play­offs just around the cor­ner, ev­ery game counts. Af­ter La Salle, Ate­neo has UST left in its sched­ule. La Salle’s re­main­ing as­sign­ment is against UP. The Ea­gles should fin­ish at the pole po­si­tion and even if surg­ing Adamson ties Ate­neo for first place, the quo­tient will fa­vor the Loy­ola school. Ate­neo is +10 over Adamson in their two meet­ings. A win for La Salle is more crit­i­cal than a win for Ate­neo be­cause the Archers aren’t 100 per­cent sure to ad­vance to the play­offs while the Ea­gles are safely qual­i­fied. La Salle has a guar­an­teed play­off for a Fi­nal Four spot and needs one more win to clinch. In the tour­na­ment for­mat, the quo­tient sys­tem will break ties for first and third spots while a play­off will set­tle ties for sec­ond and fourth.

La Salle and Ate­neo have fig­ured in the last two fi­nals. The Archers won, 2-0, in Sea­son 79 and the Ea­gles pre­vailed, 2-1, in Sea­son 80 last year. The Taft var­sity has un­der­gone a ma­jor facelift since those two fi­nals ap­pear­ances. Coach Aldin Ayo has gone and is now with UST. Ben Mbala, Abu Trat­ter and the Rivero broth­ers Prince and Ricci are gone, too. This sea­son, Ayo’s as­sis­tant Louie Gon­za­lez has taken over the Archers reins with Glen Ca­pa­cio and Siot Tan­quing­cen pro­vid­ing vet­eran guid­ance. Six new­com­ers are in the 13-man ros­ter with seven holdovers. La Salle suf­fered a ma­jor set­back when New Zealand rookie cen­ter Tee Sa­muel went down with a stress frac­ture in his left foot af­ter play­ing only five min­utes in his UAAP de­but.

Coach Tab Bald­win re­mains on Ate­neo’s bench and with his Olympic cre­den­tials, he’s clearly the yard­stick in the league. The Ea­gles lost Chiz Ikeh, Kris Porter and Vince Tolentino and brought in Ange Kouame, Wil­liam Navarro, S. J. Be­lan­gel and Matthew Daves. Dropped from the lineup were Jawuan White and for­mer NCAA ju­niors MVP Troy Malilin.

In the first round, Ate­neo crushed La Salle, 71-55. The Ea­gles held the Archers to only eight points in the sec­ond quar­ter as their de­fense proved im­preg­nable. La Salle was forced into 28 turnovers, shot a lowly 29 per­cent from the floor and dished out only three as­sists in 40 min­utes. Aljun Mele­cio was the lone Archer who scored in dou­ble fig­ures. Ate­neo had more three-point hits, 10-3, took more field goal at­tempts, 75-62 and missed only two free throws com­pared to La Salle’s seven. La Salle’s bright spot was in re­bound­ing where the Archers had the ad­van­tage, 54-43.

It’s no se­cret that Bald­win’s win­ning for­mula is an­chored on de­fense. Ate­neo is No. 1 in points al­lowed, giv­ing up only 61.8. The Ea­gles are the only team to hold an op­po­nent to less than 50 points and they did it twice, 72-46 over NU and 62-48 over Adamson. Ate­neo is also No. 1 in forc­ing op­po­nents’ turnovers at 19.0 a game. La Salle, how­ever, is no slouch on de­fense ei­ther. The Archers are No. 1 in field goal per­cent­age al­lowed at .352 and in least points in the paint al­lowed at 28.2.

In of­fense, Ate­neo is No. 2, be­hind UP, av­er­ag­ing 77.5 points while La Salle is No. 3 at 75.4. The Archers are the only team to score at least 100 points this sea­son and hold the record for post­ing the most points, 99-72 and 110-69, both over UST. It’s re­mark­able how Gon­za­lez has been able to cover up over 50 points and 25 re­bounds that van­ished with the loss of seven play­ers from last year. And he did it with­out Sa­muel in har­ness.

The Ea­gles are los­ing only An­ton Asis­tio to grad­u­a­tion while La Salle’s Kib Mon­talbo and Dodong San­til­lan are play­ing in their fi­nal sea­son. Kouame is a rev­e­la­tion as a fresh­man, av­er­ag­ing 14.1 points, 14.3 re­bounds and 3.4 blocked shots. He’s both a fi­nesse and power player, mak­ing him a dif­fi­cult matchup be­cause of his ver­sa­til­ity. Thirdy Ravena is play­ing his best as a col­le­gian, av­er­ag­ing 12.5 points, 6.1 re­bounds and 2.5 as­sists and Asis­tio is as deadly as ever from be­yond the arc, hit­ting 46.3 per­cent. Bald­win’s other re­li­ables in a deep ro­ta­tion in­clude Raffy Ver­ano, Isaac Go, Tyler Tio, Matt and Mike Ni­eto, Jolo Men­doza, Gian Ma­muyac, Adrian Wong and Aaron Black. There are 12 play­ers av­er­ag­ing at least 10 min­utes and only three, at least 20. In con­trast, La Salle has a shorter ro­ta­tion with 10 play­ers av­er­ag­ing at least 10 min­utes and five, at least 20.

Mele­cio, Jus­tine Bal­tazar and San­til­lan are av­er­ag­ing in dou­ble fig­ure points. Bal­tazar has raised his clips from 3.3 points, 2.4 re­bounds and 6.9 min­utes last year to 12.8 points, 10 re­bounds and 27.5 min­utes this sea­son. Gon­za­lez has started 10 dif­fer­ent play­ers and only rookie Joaqui Manuel, a for­mer Ate­neo high school player, has started all 12 games.

An­drei Cara­cut, rookie En­cho Ser­rano, Mark Dyke, Jolo Go, Mon­talbo, an­other rookie Bran­don Bates, Miggy Corteza and Gabe Ca­pa­cio round out the cast. While Mele­cio is the Archers’ undis­puted top gun, av­er­ag­ing 15.8 points, Gon­za­lez has un­cov­ered a slew of he­roes to de­liver big plays in dif­fer­ent games with Manuel, Bates, San­til­lan, Bal­tazar, Cara­cut, Ser­rano, Dyke, Go and Mon­talbo tak­ing turns in a stel­lar role. Un­pre­dictabil­ity and chem­istry are what Gon­za­lez hopes to bring to the game to­day be­cause it will take a supreme col­lec­tive ef­fort to lower the boom on the fa­vored Ea­gles.

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