MANILA,  September 20, 2004  (STAR) By Abac Cordero - A bigger task now lies ahead for La Salle.

After disposing of bitter rival Ateneo in the Final Four yesterday, La Salle moved on to the finals where it will face defending champion Far Eastern University in a best-of-three showdown for the 67th UAAP crown.

La Salle coach Franz Pumaren was so ecstatic after yesterday’s 69-55 victory over Ateneo at the Big Dome but said the celebration won’t have to last long as the Green Archers shift their focus on the talented Tamaraws.

"We’re glad to be back in the finals because this erases the stigma of 2002 and 2003," said Pumaren of the previous years, the first when they lost to Ateneo in the finals and the second when they even failed to get there.

"I’m just glad that we’re back where we really belong. A lot of people doubted us after we fell to 4-4 in the first round so we took it as a challenge. The gurus who said we won’t even reach the Final Four, we proved them wrong," he added.

For landing No. 2 after the elims, La Salle enjoyed a twice-to-beat edge against No. 3 Ateneo. But the Green Archers didn’t take any chances, finishing off the Blue Eagles the moment the opportunity came in the third quarter.

The top team in the elims, FEU also made short work of UE in their Final Four matchup last Thursday. FEU coach Koy Banal was at courtside yesterday, seated quietly sizing up the Green Archers for the finals.

"La Salle is on a roll and they’ve playing very inspired basketball. The first thing we should work on is ourselves. We have to be ready mentally and emotionally," said Banal as he looked forward to the finals starting on Thursday.

La Salle is truly on a roll, winning its last eight games for longest win streak this season. Two more wins are needed to win it all. "Now that’s simply putting pressure on us," said Pumaren in the post-game interview.

For the Blue Eagles, the season which started on a bright note is finally over. They were tipped to win the title this year especially after they swept the first round of the eliminations. But things changed dramatically – and for the worse.

As expected, there was a pall of gloom inside the Ateneo dugout where almost everyone, from the coaches to the players and other team officials, were hurting deep inside.

Mark Cardona dished out an MVP performance to send the Green Archers to the finals for the 10th time in the last 11 years. He had 24 points, five assists and three steals in 29 minutes and hit a magical shot in the third quarter with his head band covering his eyes.

"It was a fantastic shot," said Pumaren of Cardona, a hot candidate for this year’s MVP award.

After a tight first half, the Green Archers broke loose in the third quarter, opening it up with an 11-3 run for the game’s first double-digit advantage at 41-31.

A commotion took place earlier on when LA Tenorio and Gerwin Gaco got entangled after a rebound battle underneath the La Salle basket. This triggered a series of trash-talking among the opposing players, some hard fouls and a couple of player warnings from the referees.While baskets came in trickles for Ateneo in the third period, La Salle started to pour it on as it raced to a 49-35 lead on JV Casio’s triple heading into the final quarter. La Salle fans were up on their feet as they whooped it up during the break while the Ateneo fans were silently glued on their seats.

Things didn’t change in the fourth quarter where the Blue Eagles were held scoreless in the first three minutes, breaking the spell only after Magnum Membrere hit a three-pointer. They also committed at least five turnovers during that stretch, allowing the Green Archers to take a 17-point lead.

LA Tenorio was a picture of frustration on the floor and seemed to have given up the fight as he picked up his fourth foul off Joseph Yeo, 7:15 left. Tenorio was given a brief rest and didn’t even get a single high five from any of the Ateneo players on the bench as he took his seat.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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