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(Mall of Asia Arena)
11 a.m. – NU vs La Salle (Women’s)
4 p.m. – La Salle vs Ateneo (Men’s)
A new chapter will be written in the storied rivalry of La Salle and Ateneo as they start their best-of-three series for the UAAP basketball championship today at the Mall of Asia Arena.
La Salle’s Aldin Ayo, brought after steering his alma mater Letran to an unlikely NCAA title run, looks to join an elite list of coaches who have won championships in both leagues with a talent-laden lineup and a defensive-oriented system known as “Mayhem.”
His counterpart is American-Kiwi Tab Baldwin, who after a decorated stint with the New Zealand national team and a two-year spell as Gilas Pilipinas mentor took the young Ateneo squad to what many believed was an unlikely trip to the finals.
Immediately after the dream matchup was clinched following Ateneo’s dramatic Final Four victory over dethroned champion Far Eastern University, Baldwin declared that his team is the underdog in the series, even if they were the ones responsible for dealing La Salle its only loss – an 83-71 mastery last Nov. 5.
“If people don’t see that were the underdog, then they’re blind,” Baldwin said. “We are the prohibitive underdogs in this tournament, but the confidence from having beaten them once, at the same time knowing that it was a team that was complacent, that was on a 12-game run and a team that beaten us soundly before, so we know that we’re not gonna see the same Green Archers team in Game 1.
Out to foil La Salle’s bid are the scrappy Ateneans led by Thirdy Ravena, Adrian Wong, Raffy Verano, Chibueze Ikeh, Aaron Black and Isaac Go, who scored the go-ahead putback in the Eagles’ 69-68 overtime win over the Tams.
La Salle dominated the elimination round with a 13-1 record behind a dominant display from Cameroonian import and future league Most Valuable Player Ben Mbala, an all-around showing by graduating forward Jeron Teng, the defensive expertise of guard Kib Montalbo and timely contributions from rookie guard Aljun Melecio and power forward Abu Tratter to name a few.
The Green Archers also crushed the Blue Eagles in the first round, 97-81, with Mbala, Teng and company turning their foes into minced meat.
But La Salle has shown that it is far from being an invincible team as its run of form late in the elims and in the narrow Final Four win over Adamson more than a week ago has left Ayo frustrated.
Ayo, however, believes his players are out to redeem themselves and prove why they are the best among the rest.
“I’m very optimistic. I’ve seen it during practice, yung body language nila na they have surrendered to the system,” said Ayo.