TALK OF THE TOWN

MANILA, September 30, 2003 (STAR) SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin M. Henson  - At least for a day, the talk of the town won’t be Kris Aquino revealing the sordid details of her stormy love affair with Parañaque Mayor Joey Marquez.

Today, all roads lead to the Big Dome for the showdown of showdowns–a do-or-die duel between varsity basketball’s staunchest archrivals. Forget Kris, forget Joey. Forget even Jose Pidal. Everything takes a backseat to an Ateneo-La Salle game, particularly where so much is at stake. Not just bragging rights. But the chance to go up against Far Eastern University (FEU) in a best-of-3 series for the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) seniors basketball crown.

The game starts at 3 p.m. so expect a lot of offices to shut down early. The Araneta Coliseum will be bursting at the seams. Fans are expected to troop to Cubao for lunch then claim their seats at least an hour before tipoff. No sense rushing to the venue late and getting caught in a major traffic snarl.

When La Salle and Ateneo tangled last Thursday, National Basketball Association (NBA) veteran and Red Bull import Scott Burrell couldn’t believe his eyes. He watched the action from the baseline, accompanied by Barako teammate and former Blue Eagle Rico Villanueva. He never imagined such a passion for the game–from a country that isn’t even a world power in hoops. And Burrell thought he’d seen it all when he played with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on the Chicago Bulls championship squad of ’98.

You wonder what the ticket situation is like. If scalpers aren’t reined in, they’ll make a killing today like never before. Traditionally, the coliseum is split into the green side and the red side. Today, it’ll be strictly blue and green.

The title won’t be on the line. Who cares? A knockout game packs more drama than a never-ending soap opera.

Even former Lewis and Clark College star guard Brooks Meek, who planed in the other day to join the Detlef Schrempf tour here, is aware of the madness. He’s setting appointments only before and after the game.

Today’s battle isn’t only about basketball. It’s about school loyalty. It’s about defending your heritage. It’s about where you came from. That’s why more than Crispa versus Toyota or Yco versus Ysmael Steel, there’s no more bitter rivalry on local shores than Ateneo versus La Salle.

In the eliminations, Ateneo whipped La Salle twice, 82-68 last Aug. 9 and 98-89 last Sept. 13. Neither game was close. Eagle guard L. A. Tenorio presided in the first shellacking–compiling 15 points, six rebounds and five assists. Larry Fonacier buried 4-of-5 treys to finish with a game-high 22. For La Salle, MVP candidate Mark Cardona didn’t start and played sparingly, netting 12. In the second encounter, Tenorio shone anew–with 22 points, six assists and two steals. But Ateneo’s deeper bench sealed it with Magnum Membrere and J. C. Intal combining for 25 points. Joseph Yeo shot 18 and Cardona, 16, for the Archers.

With a twice-to-beat advantage, Ateneo lost a 76-72 overtime decision to La Salle in a Final Four pairing last Thursday. A free-for-all marred the contest. Tenorio, who hit 13 points, and Archers rookie Ryan Arana were suspended a game for their role in the melee. Cardona sat out the action with a sprained left ankle.

Tenorio is clearly a bigger loss to Ateneo than Arana is to La Salle. With Cardona back in harness, the Archers hope to ride the momentum of last Thursday’s win and end the Eagles’ reign.

But La Salle, with eight freshmen in coach Franz Pumaren’s cast, is the underdog. The betting line was plus-7 for La Salle last Thursday and today, it’s likely to be plus-2 or 3 because lack of experience is a handicap in a pressure game.

The Archers threw off Ateneo without Cardona last Thursday. Pumaren worked his magic like a charm but if La Salle is to make it two in a row, Cardona’s got to play. La Salle was lucky to win once–it will take more than luck to beat Ateneo twice.

Losing Tenorio is a major blow to Ateneo particularly as Pumaren likes to trap and press. The Eagles will be a little less resilient to the press without a leader like L. A. But Eagles coach Joel Banal is no stranger to pressure. He knows what it takes to win the big ones. And Ateneo has more than enough weapons to offset Tenorio’s absence–Rich Alvarez, Wesley Gonzalez, Fonacier and Paolo Bugia.

For La Salle, Pumaren has everything to gain and nothing to lose. He’ll lean on Yeo, J. V. Casio, Tyrone Tang, Carlo Sharma, Jerwin Gaco, Jun-Jun Cabatu and Cardona to defy the odds.

Nobody thought Pumaren would come this close to barging into the title playoffs after the Archers barely made it to the Final Four with a 7-7 mark. The downside is the Archers may be satisfied with how far they’ve gone–once they show signs of stepping back, the Eagles will not be denied their chance of making history.

If Ateneo wins, it’ll be via a blowout. If La Salle wins, it’ll be by a hair. If you ask FEU coach Coy Banal, he’ll no doubt prefer a drag-out dogfight to soften up the Tamaraws’ opponent when the title playoffs begin Thursday.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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