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Henry Liao

ATENEO VS. LA SALLE: CAN DAVID OVERCOME GOLIATH?

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Season 75 of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines has reached its Final Four stage with top seed Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles (12-2) facing the fourth seed arch nemesis De La Salle University Green Archers (9-5) and second seed University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers (10-4) taking on the third seed and host National University Bulldogs (9-5) on Saturday afternoon, September 29, at the state-of-the-art Mall of Asia Arena.

NU, La Salle and Far Eastern University wound up tied for third-to-fifth places with identical 9-5 records during the double-round elimination phase of a season that was most competitive in recent years. (In years before, eight victories would have assured a team of a playoff for a Four seat.)

While four-time defending titlist Ateneo and UST own a twice-to-beat advantage over their respective foes, don't look for La Salle and NU to simply roll over and die. Despite the odds stacked up against La Salle and NU, either series could yet stretch to a rubber match.

During the elimination round, UST whipped NU, 77-71, in the first round behind Jeric Teng's 21 points and 11 rebounds and then repeated with a 58-57 overtime squeaker in the second turn as Bulldogs star and two-time league MVP Bobby Parks was held to 15 points.

Ateneo, on the other hand, also has beaten La Salle twice by 10 points this season, a 71-61 decision on July 28 behind man-mountain Greg Slaughter's 20 points and a 77-67 verdict on September 1 behind burly swingman Ryan Buenafe's career-high 24 points.

Overall, the Blue Eagles have made mincemeat of the Green Archers in 11 of their last 12 UAAP meetings (the last time that DLSU defeated Ateneo was during a 2010 first-round match, a come-from-behind 66-63 win by the Green).

Overall, Ateneo, which is bidding to become only the second team in UAAP annals to capture five straight championships or more (UE was the winner from 1965 to 1971), owns a ultra-slim 35-34 (win-loss) advantage against La Salle in their head-to-head UAAP rivalry.

The Blue Eagles, who will be coached by Norman Black for the last time before he moves over to the professional Philippine Basketball Association with Talk 'N Text next month, are heavy favorites to make it three in a row over the Green Archers.

Slaughter, 2011 UAAP Rookie of the Year awardee Keifer Ravena, Nico Salva (who along with Justin Chua are looking for an unprecedented fifth title ring) and Buenafe are expected to give huge problems for DLSU rookie coach Gee Abanilla's young turks.

But ADMU patron Manuel V. Pangilinan's recent decision to disassociate himself from the Ateneo sports program may yet be a mental distraction for Black (a PLDT employee) and his charges.

La Salle, which beat FEU, 69-66, in a stunning come-from-behind fashion for the fourth and last Final Four berth in a playoff last September 26,having scored 17 straight points after trailing by 10, 60-50, in the final six minutes, has to be satisfied so far. The goal of reaching the Final Four in former Ambassador Danding Cojuangco's first year back in the DLSU stablehas been accomplished.

Rookie Jeron Teng, the league's top freshman with averages of 16.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 15 starts; much-improved Fil-Canadian frontliner Norbert Torres, three-point threat and second-round fireman Almond Vosotros, and first-year guard Thomas Torres have provided the spark
for the Archers.

La Salle would be hard-pressed to defeat Ateneo. But in any match featuring the two rivals,you throw away the previous results and the statistics as anything is possible. That's where David has a chance against Goliath, no matter how strong the opponent is.

I recall the days when Ateneo and La Salle were still in the old National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Ateneo joined the UAAP in 1978 and DLSU followed suit in 1986.)

Let's turn back the hands of time and recall the 1969 first-round game between the two schools.

Going into this duel, Ateneo, which had ace gunner Luis (Chito) Afable, Marte Samson, Ricardo (Joy) Cleofas, Francis Arnaiz, Boy Morales, Ryle Ross and Ricky Palou on its roster, was unbeaten in five games in the six-team NCAA league.

La Salle, on the other hand, was 0-5. But on this day, lowly La Salle slew Ateneo, 49-48, as the Blue Eagles' left-handed hotshot, Afable, missed a pair of free throws with two seconds left to allow the Green Archers to frolic to victory.

Will history repeats itself on Saturday when David comes face to face once more with Goliath?

Let the Bible speak for itself.

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