SEPTEMBER 20, 2008
(STAR) THE GAME OF MY LIFE By Bill Velasco - In the Philippines, there are very few events which literally cause us to stop, moving, gripping spectacles that, like many historical events, burn themselves into our consciousness so that we even remember where we were when they happened.

Tomorrow, one of the few events of this kind takes place. The defending UAAP champion De La Salle Green Archers face a strong Ateneo De Manila Blue Eagles in Game 1 of the finals. Ateneo has lost only one game all season long.

On July 6, the two clashed for the first time this season, with Ateneo parading a platoon of highly touted new recruits in Ryan Buenafe, Nico Salva, Justin Chua and Vince Burke. The Blue Eagles prevailed, 79-73, with victory only assured in the dying minutes of the game, as usual. The second-round match-up, a low-scoring affair, took place on Sept. 6, with the Blue Eagles in command, 65-57. The Green Archers did not play particularly well.

In 2002, the teams faced each other in the Finals, and Ateneo won its first championship since the back-to-back titles 14 years earlier.

Last season, quirks of the playoffs had the two bitter rivals face each other five times, with DLSU prevailing when it mattered.

This time, how do both teams stack up? Offense. Ironically, it’s the big men of Ateneo who make them a good running team this season, from both ends of the floor. Rabeh Al-Hussaini has been a surprise, often leading the break for the Blue Eagles. Although they execute better in a halfcourt set-up, Ateneo now has the rebounding and the guards to run. For La Salle, they are a naturally better running team than most. Their one flaw is an occasionally over-dependence on the outside shot. In their second game, JVee Casio shot only two of 16 from the floor, at the time they needed him most. Advantage: Ateneo.

Defense. Ateneo is a better halfcourt defensive team. Nonoy Baclao is particularly effective shutting down penetrations and posing as a last line of defense despite being a little undersized. La Salle’s full-court press often makes it hard for any team to set up their offense. And there is no way around bringing the ball up. What has been a difference this season is the quickness of the Green Archers guard. LA Revilla has been a revelation. With a versatile array of forwards, Franz Pumaren has the luxury of different looks, but his specialty is transition D. Advantage: De La Salle.

Rebounding. As I’ve mentioned before, the Green Archers are not as strong a rebounding team as they look on paper. The Blue Eagles’ surprising frontline of Al-Hussaini and Baclao (from West Negros) both rebound exceptionally well, and are effective shot-blockers. In this department, La Salle will struggle, which is why their fastbreak game will be even more crucial in the series. Rico Maierhofer is better suited to play forward, but is relying on his athletic ability to fill the slot. Maui Villanueva, the former UAAP Juniors Mythical team member from UPIS who played for Higashiyama High School in Japan for three years, will be a valuable help against Ateneo. And his game-saving tip-in against UST with two-tenths of a second remaining has been a big confidence boost. Advantage: Ateneo.

Leadership. Finally, Chris Tiu is not just a role-playing shooter, but a scorer who flashes his leadership. Norman Black has also instilled a sense of calm and purpose for the team. On the other side of the fence, a lot of leaders have emerged on and off for La Salle, but the question is who will hold them together in the last two minutes of a tight game. Expect Casio to become more vocal and more aggressive.

Advantage: Even. Conditioning. Aside from Marko Batricevic who is out for the season, DLSU has had an assortment of little, nagging injuries that have bothered key players like Simon Atkins and Maierhofer. That takes away a little bit of their grit and edge. For Ateneo, Jobe Nkemakolam may have rejoined the team a week before the opening, but he was practicing with Team B. With Ateneo’s depth, they would definitely be able to push La Salle harder. Advantage: Ateneo.

Emotion. Nobody’s really talked about it, but La Salle has been playing at a disadvantage, with the majority of their coaching staff – head coach Franz Pumaren, Tonichi Yturri, Dan Rose and so on – on loan to the Nokia Philippine Youth Team. The death of assistant coach Jack Santiago’s father, and the resultant return of Pumaren from the FIBA-Asia Youth tournament in Iran also caused turmoil within the La Salle community, as Pumaren was pilloried in the media, with some even doubting the gravity of Sofronio Santiago’s illness until he passed away Thursday last week. All of these have made it a very emotionally draining time for De La Salle. It will be up to them to harness the hurt and stand together in their toughest challenge this season.

Ateneo has waited a long time for a chance to win another title. They have always been underdogs against La Salle. But not this time. The question that begs asking is this: With all the new recruits, will Ateneo be more businesslike than they would be under the circumstances? It has helped them stay calm under pressure. But will they also be able to fire up the emotion necessary, from the depths of their gut, when push comes to shove, and more than 20,000 people are screaming?

Advantage: De La Salle. The game is on.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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