The Ateneo Blue Eagles and UP Fighting Maroons will face off in a best-of-three series in the UAAP Season 81 finals. The top-seeded Blue Eagles entered the championship round by defeating the FEU Tamaraws in one game, while the Fighting Maroons had to topple the second-seeded Adamson Falcons twice to reach the finals for the first time in 32 years.
ESPN5 college basketball writers Charmie Lising and Yoyo Sarmenta answer compelling questions about the matchup between Ateneo and UP.
Can UP sustain its momentum from back-to-back do-or-die games in the Final Four?
Charmie: Both knockout games that the Fighting Maroons survived boiled down to the very last possession, with Game 2 even extending to overtime. It's impressive how the veterans, most notably team captain Paul Desiderio, showed up in the most crucial juncture. But what's concerning was how they squandered double-digit leads that put them in dangerous situations in the first place. UP's five-game streak dating back to the elimination round certainly gives them an advantage. Add the fact that they're very hungry to continue making history and pulling off surprises. However, they need to learn how to sustain their momentum in-game, especially now that they are entering unfamiliar territory against a team that's so used to being on this stage.
Yoyo: The Fighting Maroons have all the momentum in their favor heading up to their matchup against the Blue Eagles. Two game-winners in two straight Final Four games? Destiny is continuing to smile on UP. The last one courtesy of Paul Desiderio to send UP to the finals for the first time in 32 years is an all-timer. It was a no-play, all-heart shot from one of college basketball's clutch performers. The biggest takeaway from UP's impressive wins over Adamson in the Final Four will be confidence. Momentum won't necessarily be a factor when facing a veteran team like the Blue Eagles, who have been in the finals the past two seasons. Confidence can be the Fighting Maroons' greatest weapon going into the finals series.
Who will be the X-factor/s for Ateneo?
Charmie: Isaac Go and Raffy Verano will be crucial for the Blue Eagles. Known for his heroics last season, Go took a back seat this year due to the arrival of Angelo Kouame. With Bright Akhuetie and Kouame virtually canceling each other out, Go's helping hand and killer instinct can be the difference-maker. Verano, meanwhile, has been a steady contributor on all fronts for Ateneo. He can score, pass, and play defense and he can exploit his advantage in experience over his counterparts in Javi Gomez de Liaño, Jerson Prado, and Gelo Vito at the four spot.
Yoyo: As much as anybody can contribute for the Blue Eagles, Gian Mamuyac's defense will be needed by the defending champions. The Fighting Maroons have a lot of individual talent and they live off one-on-one opportunities and mismatches. Mamuyac will be tasked to guard either Paul Desiderio or Juan Gomez De Liaño, UP's two heavy-hitters. The second-year forward has the length, speed, versatility, and the defensive smarts to take on anybody. Mamuyac's contribution to the team doesn't reflect on the stat sheet but he'll be a valuable asset in Ateneo's defense.
Who has the upper hand in the matchup between Bright Akhuetie and Angelo Kouame?
Charmie: These two leading MVP contenders going up against each other in the league's biggest stage will be exciting to watch. Their impact in the series will not so much be about their individual skills and production but how their presence affects the whole team. While Bright Akhuetie has the upper hand in numbers, Angelo Kouame's perfect fit to coach Tab Baldwin's system and his quickness on defense give the Ivorian center the edge. He opens up different kinds of opportunities for his teammates and the rest of the team also put him in a good position to be assertive on both ends.
Yoyo: Even though Bright Akhuetie has more experience and is the frontrunner to win the MVP award, Angelo Kouame will have a slighter edge. The Ivorian center will have the slimmest advantage being that Ateneo's system puts its players in a better position to score. Ateneo's ball movement and player movement is the best in the league and Kouame benefits from that. UP counters that by putting Akhuetie in a lot of pick-and-roll situations, which have been most effective especially against Adamson. A pick-and-roll between Akhuetie and somebody like Juan Gomez De Liaño simply puts defenses on a bind. But Ateneo's too smart on defense and they'll clog up the lane so that Akhuetie will have trouble rolling to the rim. Plus, Kouame also has the edge on the defensive end with his shot-blocking ability. Ateneo has been one of the best defensive teams in the league in the past two years but this season added a different dimension to its already gauntlet-like defense with Kouame manning the paint.
What will be the edge of the Fighting Maroons over the defending champions?
Charmie: UP's three-headed monster in Bright Akhuetie, Juan Gomez de Liaño, and Paul Desiderio will be a handful for the Blue Eagles. They can challenge Ateneo's league-best defense by staying aggressive and catching defenders off-guard. The Fighting Maroons, as challengers to the crown, should bring out their A-game from the get-go. They have very little room for errors against the well-oiled defending champions.
Yoyo: UP ended the regular season as the top team on offense with 80.3 points per game. The Fighting Maroons were also number one in terms of pace at 79.37, highlighted by their league-best 14.6 fast break points. The Blue Eagles, meanwhile, are the best defensive team in the league. They shackle opponents to just 61.9 points and are the best in defending the 3-point line. As much as they are efficient on offense with their pristine ball movement, they are also scary good on the other end of the floor. The Fighting Maroons have a fighting chance if they can get their offense going against a defensive juggernaut like Ateneo. They can attack the basket aggressively and look for a quick Bright Akhuetie shot or a Juan Gomez De Liaño layup. They have to get to their offensive sets quicker and not allow guys like Thirdy Ravena or Gian Mamuyac to clamp down on them in the perimeter. Ateneo is too smart and too good for a slow methodical offense. UP has to be the aggressor in the series.
What does Ateneo need to do to retain the crown?
Charmie: Ateneo's systematic defense will be key in stopping UP's fast-paced and high-scoring offense. The last time they met, the Fighting Maroons were limited to a season-low 66 points. The Blue Eagles, who have relied on their next-man-up and no-superstar approach, have the tools to wreak havoc on both ends of the floor. Though they have the usual suspects in Angelo Kouame and Thirdy Ravena to lead the charge, the rest of the players are all capable of delivering the goods when needed.
Yoyo: Ateneo prides itself on efficiency on both ends of the court. The Tab Baldwin-mentored squad puts a premium on every single possession and that's why they top most of the statistical categories in offense and defense. Among other things, they value rebounding (particularly on the offensive glass), avoiding turnovers, and getting the best shot available when they have the ball. They are also meticulous on defense, getting down to opponents' tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses. They break down every play and every player down to the minute detail. It's no coincidence that no FEU Tamaraw scored in double-figures in their Final Four matchup. The Blue Eagles are a well-oiled machine with only a few chinks to their armor. They simply have to be their usual dominant selves in order for them to win.