The UAAP will feature an Ateneo-FEU showdown in the Final Four for the fourth straight season. This matchup has become a classic rivalry of sorts involving game-winners and tight finishes, with the Blue Eagles having a 2-1 advantage over the Tamaraws.
FEU knocked out Ateneo before moving on to the finals and claiming the trophy back in Season 78. The Blue Eagles prevailed in the next couple of years but they had to survive grueling rubber matches that extended into overtime in order to advance to the championship.
This Season 81, the contrapelos will test each other's mettle anew. The fourth-seeded Tamaraws (8-6) are seeking to return to the big dance for the first time in three years, while the reigning champs (12-2) are looking to defend their crown.
How Ateneo got here
The Blue Eagles came into the season boasting of multiple titles from preseason leagues and an impressive stint in the 2018 William Jones Cup.
The undisputed title favorites were seemingly invincible until they stumbled in their very first assignment against the Adamson Falcons. This early loss served as a wake-up call for the team, which enjoyed a five-game streak before getting beaten again, this time by the Tamaraws.
After figuring in a triple-tie for first place alongside FEU and Adamson at the end of the first round, Ateneo dominated and maintained a clean slate the rest of the way. At some point, the team missed the services of key pieces like Thirdy Ravena (suspension) and brothers Matt and Mike Nieto (injuries) but several players stepped up in their absence.
With their next man up mentality, the Blue Eagles became the first squad to clinch a Final Four spot and a twice-to-beat incentive this year.
How FEU got here
Unlike their opponent's relatively easy path, the Tamaraws had to climb a mountain to arrive at this stage.
They emerged on top of the standings after the first round, with wins over fellow league-leaders Ateneo and Adamson to boot. But they followed this up with a four-game slide, which put their postseason bid in serious danger.
It did not help that big man Prince Orizu suffered a high grade ankle sprain and top scorer Arvin Tolentino served back-to-back suspensions in that disastrous stretch. But just when FEU's hopes were going down the drain, the team finally gained some rhythm towards the end of the eliminations.
The Tamaraws surged to four straight victories, including a heart-stopping triumph over the De La Salle Green Archers that handed them the last ticket to the semifinals.
What Ateneo needs to do to win
The Blue Eagles are the hottest team entering the playoffs with a seven-game win streak but the Tamaraws are not far behind in terms of momentum. Ateneo's twice-to-beat edge was put to good use in the last two years and it won't be surprising if this series head in that direction once more.
Angelo Kouame has been the consistent difference-maker for the defending champs. His mere presence in the paint opens up opportunities for his teammates. But what makes them more dangerous is their no-superstar approach. Anybody on the team can rise to the occasion when called upon and this bench depth will definitely be a key asset for them.
The Blue Eagles are number one in limiting perimeter points and this will come in handy as they face the best outside shooting team. Aside from allowing the least number of points per 100 possessions (80.46), they are also tops in the league in forcing turnovers and blocking shots. They can capitalize on these strengths to disrupt the Tamaraws' flow.
What FEU needs to do to win
When the Tamaraws absorbed a 20-point loss to the Blue Eagles, Kouame proved to be the biggest hurdle as he put up a historic 33-point, 27-rebound performance. That pounding happened when Orizu got injured and Tolentino was suspended, so it's a bit of a relief for them that they can devise better defensive strategies now that they are marching into battle with a complete frontline.
FEU's big men will also have their hands full in manning the glass. With Barkley Eboña at the forefront, they showed incredible effort in this department in their latest game against the Green Archers, but this was a weakness that they struggled to address throughout the year. They need to be mindful of extra possessions knowing that Ateneo is the league's best rebounding team.
The Tamaraws' collective defense will be crucial as they try to contain a champion squad that has multiple weapons at its disposal. That's what they did in the first round when they forced the high-scoring Blue Eagles to their lowest output of the season. And that's what they have to do on Sunday if they want to send this Final Four series to a do-or-die Game 2.