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In Your Face!

Lookie What We Got Here

Rating: 3 votes, 4.00 average.
Benjie Paras, the legendary Tower of Power of the PBA, the PBA's only rookie MVP, was still a teenager and the center of the University of the Philippines the last (and only) time they won the UAAP championship.

Back then, the mullet was the "in" hairstyle, and Paras was one of the many young men who sported it.

Fast forward 32 years, and Paras is now retired and has a new career as a television mainstay on sitcoms and basketball broadcasts.

His mullet is gone too, although that happened a long time ago.

His son Kobe, after a star-crossed stint in the US NCAA, is now undergoing residency in UP and will likely suit up for the Fighting Maroons next season, in what should be his third year in college.

That is how long ago it has been since State was even in the UAAP Finals.

Last night they overcame Adamson University 89-87 in their win-or-go-home knockout game for the last Finals berth in UAAP Season 81.

Their reward will be to take on reigning champion Ateneo De Manila in the Finals.

For the Blue Eagles, Season 81 was supposed to be a validation year, to stamp their class as champions on the entire field, and indeed, save for a couple of hiccups, they did precisely that.

With 6-11 rookie import Angelo Kouame manning the middle, the boys from Loyola Heights practically walloped the entire field, en route to a 12-2 record at the end of the eliminations and the Number 1 seed going into the Final 4.

Their only losses were to the Soaring Falcons on opening weekend, and to Far Eastern University, both in Round 1 of the elimination stage.

Even with those two setbacks, everybody and his brother was betting on the Ateneo to repeat as champions. Clearly, no other team had the tools to match up against them.

In their opening weekend loss to Adamson, Kouame struggled with one measly point and foul trouble, attributed to opening day / rookie jitters, and they still only lost by a basket.

In their Round 1 loss to the Tamaraws, it seemed everything including the proverbial kitchen sink was tossed in by the boys from Morayta, and went through the net. Ateneo also lost their top two players, forward Thirdy Ravena to fouls, pointguard Matt Nieto to a finger injury, and having a nightmare of a third period as FEU did them in 7-17.

All of their wins however were in dominating fashion.

They got back at both the Falcons and the Tamaraws in Round 1, shredding both teams, although FEU losing big import Prince Orizu in the first period made things a lot easier for the Ateneo to exact payback.

Looking back at video of their elimination wins, the Blue Eagles, quite simply, were never really threatened by any opponent.

Kouame remains the primary reason of course, with his combination of size (he's the biggest player in the league), wingspan (7-5), quickness, ability to handle, run the floor, and with touch rare for a player his size. Kouame gives the Ateneo so many extra possessions because he easily out-rebounds entire teams. Kouame's length and athleticism also allow him to be a prototypical modern era rim protector, averaging more blocks on his own than entire teams. If the UAAP thought the Ateneo was a load in Greg Slaughter's two years, they better brace themselves for Kouame, who is only in his first playing year with four more to go.

UP on the other hand was at various points either below .500 or just at that level. They ended the eliminations with an 8-6 record, besting favored De La Salle in their last elimination assignment to wrap up the third seed in the Final 4. This was their first time back in the Final 4 after a 21-year absence.

They are leaning on the MVP performance of import Bright Akhuetie, who transferred from Perpetual Help, last season's Rookie of the Year, Juan Gomez De Liaño, and team captain Paul Desiderio.

Gomez De Liaño has proven to be quite the gunner, scoring 30 against Adamson in their KO game, but he also leads the league in assists, proving he can both score and create for his teammates.

Desiderio is one of those all heart guys who want the ball in crucial situations. It was his basket, right in the face of the much taller Sean Manganti, that sealed the win for UP and sent the Maroons into the Finals. It was not the first time Desiderio nailed a game winning shot for his team.

Kouame gets plenty of help from Ravena, who has been described by Coach Tab Baldwin as a "mini Hulk". Ravena might have made the Mythical 5 were it not for a suspension early in the season due to unsportsmanlike fouls.

Nieto also provides production, leadership, and headiness for the Blue Eagles, having emerged last season as a bona fide star after previous years as nothing more than the guy getting the ball to the real stars.

So it is essentially a Big 3 versus Big 3 match in these Finals, which means any kind of help from other sources might spell the difference.

The Ateneo can count on their hotshot guard trio of Anton Asistio, Tyler Tio, and Jolo Mendoza, all of whom can light it up from three-point range, help advance the ball against pressure, and also work the pick-roll action. Gian Mamuyac and Adrian Wong provide size, length, and athleticism at the perimeter, especially on defense. They might come in most handy on defense versus Gomez De Liaño and Desiderio. Forwards Raffy Verano, Mike Nieto, and Will Navarro won't turn heads but they are older, veteran players who know how to play and thrive in the hockey assist regime of Baldwin.

UP will look to Juan's older brother Javier, guards Diego Dario and Jarelle Lim, swingmen JD Tungcab and Jan Jaboneta, and veteran big men Gelo Vito and Jerson Prado to provide crucial support, especially on defense.

This series though will swing around Kouame: how he does will determine if it will be a cakewalk for the Ateneo to a back-back title, or if they will struggle and succumb to the sky-high confidence of the Maroons who rightly feel they can beat anybody at this point.

Smart money though says Ateneo ends this in two games, a relatively close Game 1, and an out and out rout in Game 2.
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