The Ateneo Blue Eagles and the UST Growling Tigers will resume their UAAP Season 82 men's basketball finals battle on Wednesday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Will the Blue Eagles clinch their third straight championship or will the Growling Tigers extend the series and spoil Ateneo's unbeaten run?
How did the Blue Eagles dominate Game 1?
Two-time Finals MVP Thirdy Ravena showed once more that the championship round is his stage, erupting for 32 points and leading Ateneo's attack. Ange Kouame bullied his way inside with an 18-point, 12-rebound performance, while SJ Belangel quelled UST's rally in the second quarter with his hot shooting, finishing with four 3s en route to 12 points on top of five assists.
The Blue Eagles shrugged off the usual notion that a long break can make a basketball team rusty. They looked every bit of a champion team from the opening minutes until the final buzzer. They shot the ball well and finished with a 52.1 percent clip. They also took advantage of their strength in the paint, relentlessly attacking the Tigers' shaky defense.
While they were not able to limit UST's perimeter points -- the Tigers still got 41 points, slightly above their league-best average -- they made up for it by running and beating their opponents in transition (23-8 fast-break points). The defending champions also capitalized on UST's errors (27-14 turnover points) to build an early double-digit cushion and maintained their defensive intensity to pull away again in the second half.
How can the Tigers bounce back and force Game 3?
The Tigers still got their usual numbers from the perimeter and the 3-point area (14-of-33) but only Mark Nonoy and Brent Paraiso found their range. Other snipers like Renzo Subido, Rhenz Abando, Sherwin Concepcion, and CJ Cansino struggled to get good looks and hit their shots. Even Soulemane Chabi Yo was not able to display his usual MVP form despite his double-double output of 13 points and 10 rebounds.
They don't need to veer away from their brand of play in Game 2. They just need to get their outside shots going while taking care of the offensive boards. Chabi Yo imposed his presence in the shaded lane but he had a hard time battling with Ateneo's balanced rebounding effort. The Blue Eagles came prepared, having their eye on the ball every time UST missed and then maximized every fast-break opportunity.
More importantly, the Tigers need to turn their transition defense up a notch. They can't afford to receive another ruthless beating from Ravena and Kouame. But as UST head coach Aldin Ayo said, they need to be wary of the whole Ateneo team knowing that any one of them can step up and explode at any time.
Who will be the X-factors for both teams?
UST sorely missed Subido's playmaking in Game 1. The veteran point guard, who averaged 6.3 assists in the stepladder semifinals including an impressive 12-assist outing against UP, managed to dish just two dimes against Ateneo. He also had a dismal 2-of-10 shooting from downtown to finish with only eight points. Subido's leadership has been an integral part of the Tigers' success and he needs to show up in Game 2 to give his team a fighting chance.
Aside from Subido, Abando also needs to bounce back from a mere 3-point, 1-rebound performance in the series opener. This a far cry from his averages of 11.7 points and 5.3 rebounds heading into the finals. Yo and Nonoy cannot carry the scoring load that the team usually spreads out, and Abando is one of the players expected to ease this burden.
On the other hand, Ateneo will most likely rely on Ravena and Kouame to be at the forefront of their attack again. But as a team that values the next-man-up mentality, it's how hard to predict who will turn out to be its X-factors.
Defensive stoppers Will Navarro and Gian Mamuyac, however, are top candidates as they are expected to play key roles in disrupting the Tigers' offense. Their contagious energy can help anchor the Blue Eagles' trademark lockdown defense as they prepare to hold off UST's plethora of shooters.
How likely can the Blue Eagles achieve a historic season sweep?
The last team that completed a 14-0 season sweep and declared outright champion was UST when the Final Four format was first implemented in 1993. No team, however, has achieved a 16-0 season sweep in the UAAP.
UE came close in 2007 when Mark Borboran and Paul Lee led the Red Warriors to an elimination round sweep. After 21 days of rest, however, they ended up getting swept by La Salle in the finals.
Tab Baldwin knows how to engage Aldin Ayo in a brilliant chess match, having met in the finals two times when Ayo was still with DLSU. Ayo and the Ben Mbala-led Green Archers prevailed in Season 79, but Baldwin and the Blue Eagles successfully rose to the top in Season 80.
Game 2 will be another interesting show of adjustments, with both teams relying on their deep rotation to counter whatever threats the opposing defenses may pose. They have their usual go-to players but they also have plenty of guys who can pull off surprises and catch the other team off-guard.
Ayo, in particular, is expected to bring out more tricks in another elimination situation. UST has an impressive 3-0 record in knockout matches in the playoffs so far. While it will be tough for the Blue Eagles to remain undefeated, especially against the hungry and peaking Tigers, Baldwin may just be the perfect man for the job who can steer Ateneo to such a historic feat.