The second showdown between the Ateneo Blue Eagles and the UP Fighting Maroons on Wednesday will close out the epic elimination round of the UAAP Season 82 men's basketball tournament.
Three Final Four slots were still up for grabs until last Sunday, with the lone ticket held by top-seed Ateneo. The FEU Tamaraws became the next team to advance after taking care of business against the UE Red Warriors.
UP averted a potentially disastrous scenario -- where it could be relegated to a knockout for the No. 4 slot -- by outlasting the De La Salle Green Archers in another close game.
The Final Four picture was completed as La Salle bowed out of contention. FEU earned the third seed, while the UST Growling Tigers settled for fourth.
There are still three games left before the postseason begins, but only the Battle of Katipunan will have implications as the result of this highly-anticipated matchup will determine the format for the next stage.
If the Blue Eagles win, they will automatically clinch a Finals berth while the rest of the semifinalists will engage in a stepladder battle. UST and FEU will play a knockout match, the winner of which will face the twice-to-beat UP for the right to challenge Ateneo in the championship.
If the Fighting Maroons win, a typical Final Four series will take place where Ateneo and UP will have twice-to-beat advantage over UST and FEU, respectively.
Ateneo's unbeaten record at stake
The Blue Eagles have never achieved a 14-0 sweep, even during their five-peat glory days from 2008 to 2012. They came close during the time of Kiefer Ravena and Greg Slaughter back in Season 74 when they went 13-0 before the Adamson Falcons tarnished their clean record.
The same thing happened two years ago, but this time, it was La Salle that prevented them from completing a sweep. They still brought home the championship in both instances.
Ask Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin or any of his players and everyone will say that they are not concerned about the potential 14-0 feat.
"Next game is the last game. I understand that that is a sweep or not a sweep, but again, those are just minor issues for us," said Baldwin. "The major issue for us is how we play against UP. What are our tactics? What are our strategies? How do we execute? How do we anticipate what they might do? There's nothing else that enters into the equation for us."
Not aiming for the sweep, however, does not mean that the Blue Eagles do not care if they win or lose. It just means that they will head into their final assignment in the same way that they have approached the first 13.
"I think our biggest problem is gonna be complacency. Especially at 13-0, it's a trap for us to relax and let our guard down," said Thirdy Ravena. "We don't need to focus on what we want to accomplish but instead we have to always focus on preparing for the next game. We're not gonna treat it as something that would be bigger than a regular basketball game, even if it's Ateneo-UP."
Matt Nieto admits that it's hard to tune out the hype surrounding the sweep but they try not to let it affect their mindset as they continue working toward their ultimate goal of defending the championship.
"It's hard for us not to think about the sweep because everyone talks about it," said Nieto. "That's the goal from the start, win as many games and not lose. But we already learned that from the 13 games we had, and hopefully, we can use that going into UP and then going into the playoffs."
UP's last test of character before the playoffs
The Fighting Maroons already reached a milestone in their penultimate elimination round game. By notching their ninth win, they not only booked back-to-back trips to the Final Four but also clinched the second seed and twice-to-beat incentive for the first time.
UP coach Bo Perasol celebrated with his players in the locker room right after their tight win over the Green Archers, but he was quick to remind the team that the job is far from over. Advancing to the semifinals is just the first step.
"I mentioned to the guys that we were not just fighting for the position but we were fighting for our survival as well, and I just have to give honor to them for just being warriors," said Perasol. "At least right now we're No. 2, but the point of everything else is come playoff time, what is going to be our performance?"
The Fighting Maroons have yet to solve their problem of cramming down the stretch and blowing out early leads. This resulted in dangerously close games that made them vulnerable. Heading into their final game against Ateneo and into the semis, Perasol hopes that UP can still improve in terms of securing convincing victories.
"What I wanted us to learn is how we can make it, if we can, a sizeable lead also," said Perasol. "As you can see, we are far from Ateneo who really takes advantage when they see an opportunity to break away. Unlike us, we have the tendency to rush things. I hope we could be better."
On one hand, a stepladder might be advantageous for the Fighting Maroons as they will have more time to rest and recover before facing either UST or FEU. On the other hand, a victory heading into the playoffs -- and against an undefeated squad at that -- will give them an extraordinary boost of confidence.
For Kobe Paras, thinking of stopping the Blue Eagles' unbeaten streak will do more harm than good.
"It's just another game. We can't think about giving them their first loss or whatever," he said. "That adds pressure for no reason, so we just gotta play the game that we know and just trust each other and trust what the coaches plan first."
Will the Ateneo Blue Eagles complete a historic elimination round sweep? Or will the UP Fighting Maroons serve as streak-busters? This new chapter in the Battle of Katipunan will determine how the rest of Season 82 will unfold.