SPORTS KEN: Maroons one step away

My previous column on UAAP basketball was: Will UP dethrone Ateneo?

Last Sunday, in the same swashbuckling style that the State U platoon ousted De La Salle in a do or die semifinal match, Riccie Rivero and company beat the lights out of their Ateneo counterparts in overtime, 81-74 in Game One of their best of three final series.

It was the second victory in three meetings for UP this season where it split with Ateneo their two preliminary assignments.

What could be the reasons to assume a favorable outcome for UP when Ateneo has a far better championship experience?
Truth to tell, the Loyolans are heavy favorites to bag their fourth consecutive UAAP crown.

They boast of a multi-titled internationally acclaimed bench strategist in Tab Baldwin. The team chemistry is excellent. The players have a collegial mindset and the focus is unmistakably on ONE objective: To achieve a Four peat.

On the other hand, UP scrambled to form a competitive platoon that is a mix of several key transferees from other schools.

How coach Goldwin Monteverde – young as he is – was able to whip them into a solid squad – mentally and physically – is even a miracle to me.

The Fighting Maroons last brought home the crown 36 years ago when, if my memory serves me right, Benjie Paras, Ronnie Magsanoc and Poch Juinio were the core members under much heralded collegiate coach Joe Lipa.

Thirty six years is a mighty long span of time, almost a generation (40 years). The quality of the basketball program may have improved as time passed by, including the remarkable handling by ex-mentor Bo Perasol which I thought contributed greatly to what the Maroons are like now.

The question – appropriately – would now be amended to: Will Ateneo successfully retain its UAAP tiara?

Well, after Ateneo’s sorry and shocking loss in the opener, I now have big doubts if Baldwin and his boys can still recover.

Rivero, who poured in a game high 19 points, four steals and two blocks, is masterfully fulfilling his role as the spiritual leader and court general, being the most senior member. Sadly, his cool and calm demeanor cannot find an Ateneo counterpart.

Baldin relies heavily on his frontliners. Verano, Mamuyac and Belangel are the Eagles’ pillars in both defense and offense but they pale in comparison to Rivero, Carl Tamayo, Zavier Lucero and James Spencer who, not incidentally, knocked in the three pointer in the dying seconds to put the game into overtime.

Ateneo needs to make big adjustments. Import Ange Kouame, the leading MVP candidate, is being rendered ineffective by the omnipresent, energetic and long armed center Maodo Diouf.

Because the pressure is going to bear much on the Blue Eagles, I will place my marbles on the UP Maroons.

The hungrier ballclub always wins. (Email your feedback to GOD BLESS THE PHILIPPINES!

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