La Salle on the right path, but Ateneo still the UAAP standard



MANILA, Philippines – Ateneo versus La Salle, it’s one of the grandest traditions in Philippine sports.

It’s a social event, where spectators travel far to Cubao because of, as the modern age would call it, “FOMO.”

It’s where friends old and new meet, as men and women in blue and green share popcorn and sweets, while taking turns to cheer and scream.

“BOO!” the Ateneans roared at Jamie Malonzo, who announced his UAAP arrival with a dunk that brought back memories of a flying Ben Mbala.

And with a few choice of words for Ateneo’s own Superman.

“P**A NAMAN, REF!” the Lasallians were livid by the 2nd quarter.

Somewhere, one of the game’s officials just blew his whistle again – because why not another time, right?

The competitive spirit of Ateneo-La Salle has always been more than just about the student-athletes dribbling a basketball on a wooden floor. That’s only half the contest. The other half takes place in the bleachers, and the upper boxes, and the lower boxes, and all the way down to patrons and the VIPs.

“Animo, La Salle!”

“One Big Fight!”

It’s a beautiful chorus to complement the joust between two supposed equals.

The thing is, the Ateneo Blue Eagles have been dominating their rivals. 

On UAAP primetime Sunday, the champions in blue trounced the challengers in green again, 81-69. The Archers were good, but the Eagles were great, and the difference there laid the groundwork for two important themes:

La Salle is back on the right path.

But Ateneo is not letting go of the mountain top.

To be fair to De La Salle, Tab Baldwin’s team has reigned over the entire UAAP in this current era. 

But the Green Archers, especially against the Blue Eagles, don’t see themselves as just another UAAP team. 

Every season, no matter who wears the green and white, De La Salle is expected to compete for a championship, and nothing less.

And to them, no one is a better barometer test than their friends from Katipunan.

Ateneo, however, is near-invincible. Thirdy Ravena, Angelo Kouame, Mike Nieto, Matt Nieto, Gian Mamuyac, and their teammates will not beat themselves. As monotonous as they are, the Blue Eagles will make right play after another. Emotionless, but precise basketball. 

Before their opponents realize it, they’ve been pressured to the point of exhaustion by an extra pass, a timely swipe, a putback, a block, and then another extra pass.

It’s death by a thousand cuts. 

Or in this case, by an unlimited supply of offensive rebounds.

The best kind of success is the type that’s predictable. In every game, you know what you’re going to get from Baldwin’s Eagles. Their opponents know it, too. Does that mean it can be stopped? The current evidence points to absolutely not.

That, among other reasons, is why in the past 3 years, the Blue Eagles have won 6 of their 8 battles against the Green Archers. The uniqueness of the rivalry will forever be evergreen, but on a competitive scale, Ateneo’s supremacy over La Salle has made them just another adversary to eliminate.

It’s up to the Green Archers to change that, whenever they finally do. Until then, there’s work to do. 

DLSU’s 1st quarter was better than any quarter they played in Season 81, with the effect of bringing in a developmental guru like Jermaine Byrd on full display. 

By their first possessions, the improvement of Aljun Melecio and Andrei Caracut was conspicuous. Justine Baltazar was his usual self – a stifling defender with a soft shooting touch – while Joaqui Manuel showed signs of being the glue guy for La Salle’s tomorrow. The rest of the roster, especially the crafty lefty Kurt Lojera, exhibited raw potential with room to grow. 

Malonzo, a 6-foot-7 athlete who moves smooth for a wing, gave a tease of an all-around game that will be one of UAAP Season 82’s hottest topics, and a reason for PBA scouts to closely observe Green Archer games, following that 18-point, 10-rebound debut which barely scratched the surface of his capabilities. 

A few days before the UAAP season started, Byrd was confident that Malonzo will compete with Thirdy Ravena as the best wing in college basketball.

“He does things in practice that makes us go, ‘Oh, shit!’” claimed the mentor.

The dunk in the 1st quarter was one of those moments. That it was Thirdy, the reigning UAAP Finals MVP, who was on the receiving end of the slam added to the blockbuster effect of the highlight. 

But Ravena’s team had the last laugh.

“It’s a play. Two points. We won the game,” he said. 

And he was right. 

The inconsistency of the game’s referees was inexcusable. The officials allowed both teams to play physical in the 1st quarter, only to suddenly change their stance by the 2nd period.

Unfortunately for the Green Archers, who were relying on their speed, pace, and grit to counter the bigger and more experienced Blue Eagles, the alteration of deliberation in fouls worked to their downfall. 

It’s not that the referees displayed a bias to a team, but their incapability to remain consistent with how they officiate UAAP basketball games has been an on-going issue for the past few years, and continues to rear its ugly head in the college league’s biggest tournament this time of the year. The unforeseen swap in moods is detrimental to momentum for the teams, and entertainment for the audiences.

That right there is the game within the game. Once frustration set in for La Salle with each startling call, the weaknesses in the armor were bare for Ateneo to take advantage of. In the snap of a finger, 23-21 turned to 51-29. Kouame swatted lay-ups by Melecio, BJ Andrade hit open threes, and the Nieto brothers found every way to stick daggers.

DLSU had an admirable rally in the 2nd half and cut the lead to 8, but were unable to break through the wall. Kouame, Will Navarro, and Mike Nieto repeatedly crashed the offensive glass, forcing a tired La Salle defense to play stout D for another 24 seconds, before making them go through it over again. Gian Mamuyac, who looks ready to take the leap, buried his opponents with lethal mid-range pull-ups. 

Pure championship poise.

Give the Archers credit. Not for one second did they look intimidated by their opponents. The talented and cocky style of play has always been associated with La Salle basketball, and with these current group of guys, there’s enough of that to catapult DLSU back to Final Four contention. The men on the roster have barely had time to develop the kind of chemistry Ateneo played with, but with enough reps and patience, their familiarity will result to success. 

The verdict is still out, but the selection of Byrd, at first glance, looks like a good choice. On Wednesday, the next test arrives when La Salle takes on an NU team that always plays them close. 

Ateneo, on the other hand, will have the toughest challenge thus far of their quest for title number 3, when they take on a hot and rolling UST team shaped by Aldin Ayo, a man who has defeated Baldwin, and has the Growling Tigers believing they can win the crown. 

“If they're hitting shots, good luck,” said Baldwin. “I don't think you'll beat them if they're hitting shots.” 

We’ll see. 

Until then, Ateneo is 2-0, fresh off another big win, and still setting the standard for college basketball. 

La Salle is 0-1, and begins its journey back to the top. –