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Ateneo-Lasalle Finals Looms (Season 80 Edition)

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And just like that the flagship UAAP Season 80 men's basketball senior division tournament is about to come to a close.

After 112 elimination games spread over two rounds, it looks like the consensus Top 2 teams really are going to have rematch in the Finals.

ABS CBN and the League itself could not have planned it much better.

Reigning champion De La Salle is just waiting for arch rival Ateneo De Manila to dispose of stubborn Far Eastern as of this writing, and the two best teams of the tournament will have another blockbuster showdown to cap off the 80th season of the most popular collegiate caging tournament in the country.

Ateneo could have been first into the Finals, except that La Salle beat them in the last game of the eliminations 79-76, preventing a regular season sweep by the Blue Eagles and the automatic Finals berth that went with it. It was a reversal of sorts, as the Ateneo had prevented La Salle from sweeping last season on the last game day as well.

La Salle already booked their return trip to the Big Dance with a controversial 82-75 decision over third-seed Adamson University. The Green Archers came back from as much as 15 points down to pull the rug out from under the Soaring Falcons in their Final 4 match.

This game however came with quite a lot of baggage, and has (as of this writing) become subject of an official protest from Adamson. The heart of the matter: La Salle was awarded 39 free throws while Adamson only got five. Yes sir, that is no typo, the free throw difference was 39-5 in favor of the Green Archers.

The League responded to the Adamson protest by immediately suspending the three referees that worked this game, "with two strongly recommended for being banned for the rest of the season," in their response to Adamson. "If only to preserve public confidence in our league," the response further stated.

Adamson head coach Franz Pumaren repeatedly said this was the "worst officiating" he had ever seen, and it seems the free throw statistics support him, Ironically, Pumaren was once head coach of La Salle and even led the team to a 4-Peat from 1998 to 2001.

What other steps the league will take on this matter however remains to be seen. It is very rare that a re-play of a crucial playoff game is held, for whatever reason. In my rusty memory banks I think the last tiem a crucial game was re-played was between FEU and National University, during the heyday of the Terrence Romeo-Ray Parks shootouts, and the details now elude me. Perhaps someone can clarify the details (or even my memory of this) in the comments section.

A similar controversy erupted sometime in 2014, during the Round 1 Ateneo-UE game, when the Ateneo got a 40-24 advantage in free throws - with league darling Kiefer Ravena getting 25 free throws just for himself - and the Blue Eagles going on to overhaul a big UE lead to win that game in overtime. Ravena had a career 38 points in that game.

The Ateneo for its part succumbed to the Tamaraws last November 19th 80-67. FEU led by as many as 18 at one point, led by veteran Ron Dennison and former Blue Eagles, forward Arvin Tolentino and guard Hubert Cani.

"We haven't done anything yet. We just took away their twice-to-beat advantage," said FEU head coach Olsen Racela, himself a former Blue Eagle and part of the 1988 Ateneo title team.

Their knockout Final 4 game is set for tomorrow, November 22.

This is another deja vu situation, as the Tamaraws and Blue Eagles also went the distance in last season's Final 4, with the Ateneo eventually making it to the Big Dance.

FEU held the Ateneo to a little over 36% shooting from the field, including a nightmarish 3/17 from three-point range in the second half. "We just shot abysmally, and I can't even tell you how or why," said Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin after the game.

FEU for its part shot nearly 50% from the field and even got the lucky ones, like a 28-foot buzzer beater by Cani in the third period.

As the Season 80 Host School, Racela and the rest of the Tamaraws are hoping to make a different outcome in the KO match tomorrow.

Still, no one is betting against a rematch between the Blues and Greens.

Because seriously, can there be a bigger blockbuster in present day Philippine basketball than friggin' Ateneo-La Salle?

Who will take the title?

Smart money says the Green Archers get their back-to-back championship.
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