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.