MANILA,  September 14, 2004  (STAR) By Joey Villar - La Salle and Ateneo clash today in a virtual best-of-three showdown for a berth in the championship round of the 67th UAAP basketball tournament with neither team holding a distinct advantage over the other.

That should make the 3:45 p.m. encounter at the Araneta Coliseum worth watching, a knockout game for the No. 2 spot but which now serves as the first game of a virtual best-of-three series since the Eagles and the Archers are also set to clash in the Final Four.

At stake is the twice-to-beat advantage, ensuring an all-out war for the coveted incentive for a crack at the crown. Ateneo and La Salle closed out the gruelling elims tied at No. 2 on identical 10-4 (win-loss) records.

They actually split their two matches this season with Ateneo fighting back from 15 points down to snatch a thrilling 75-72 victory last July 11 and La Salle evening things up with an emphatic 72-61 triumph last Aug. 22.

Observers, however, note the Archers have the advantage since they are riding the crest of an amazing six-game streak. They are also more complete in terms of players since the Eagles will be without the injured Larry Fonacier.

"La Salle will be more a favored team," said Ateneo mentor Sandy Arespacochaga, who blew their chance of sealing the top seed and the twice-to-beat edge after bowing to Far Eastern U, 51-65, last Saturday.

"We just have to play harder and execute well," he added.

But in a deep-seated rivalry such as La Salle-Ateneo, there are no advantages nor disadvantages.

"You throw away everything if you talk about the rivalry. Itís going to be a thriller," said La Salle coach Franz Pumaren, whose wards capped their red-hot streak with a 81-61 rout of No. 4 University of the East last Thursday.

With Fonacier out and JC Intal far from his peak form, expect Mark Cardona, who sizzled with 24 points in La Salleís win over Ateneo, to strut his wares all game.

"JC Intal got sick. He played in FEU even if he has fever. Hopefully he can play against La Salle," said Arespacochaga.

The other Final Four match pits defending champion FEU, which finished the elimination on top with a 11-3 slate, against UE (8-6) on Thursday, also at the Big Dome. The Tamaraws, who trounced the Warriors in the semifinals last year, need only a win to clinch the first finals berth.

Meanwhile, the UAAP board, headed by Danny Jose of host La Salle, has decided to deviate from an old practice by holding the Final Four on separate dates with the Ateneo-La Salle semis duel set on Sunday at the Araneta Coliseum.

A second Final Four game, if necessary, is scheduled on Sept. 23 also at the Big Dome.

The reason for the change, according to the UAAP, is to give La Salle and Ateneo more time to rest since their playoff for the No. 2 spot is two days away from the Final Four.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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