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Final Four Pregame: La Salle vs. Ateneo 9/29

Thomas Torres

The line has been distinctly drawn, the pieces are all in place, and there is no middle ground in this third collision and first Final Four game between the De La Salle Green Archers and the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

“It’s going to be an exciting series and obviously we are the underdogs, but we’re happy with the way we are playing right now and I think that the team is peaking at the right time.”

These were the words of La Salle Head Coach Gee Abanilla as he described their meeting against the defending champions, which will be held this Saturday, September 29, at the Araneta Coliseum.

And now, with the highly-anticipated game approximately 48 hours away, we get into the nitty-gritty of just how the Archers can hand the Eagles their third loss of the tournament and force a rubber match to enter the Finals.

A Short History Lesson:

It is no secret that Ateneo has defeated La Salle in two of their three meetings in the Finals (in 1988 and in 2008, while La Salle won in 2001), but the numbers during their encounters in the Final Four tell a different story. Both teams have met four times in the semis (in 2003, 2004, 2005, and in the step ladder semifinals in 2007), and the Green Archers have won in three occasions (2004 and 2007 en route to the UAAP crown, and in 2005 before losing to FEU in the Last Dance).

However, the past seasons have not been kind to the Archers whenever they enter the Final Four as either the third or the fourth-seeded team, as they have lost in two out of the three times that they made the Final Four as the lower-seeded team.

In 2003, the Archers lost to the Blue Eagles in the Final Four despite forcing a rubber match. The same thing happened in 2010, the last time La Salle figured in the Final Four, when they lost to the top-ranked FEU Tamaraws. 1997 marked the only time that the Archers were able to overhaul the twice-to-beat advantage, as they beat the UST Growling Tigers to advance to the Finals.

Points to Ponder:

The Battle of the Boards– The Archers will be hard-pressed to once more dominate the rebounding department the way they did in their last game against the Tamaraws (they had an eye-popping 50-30 advantage on the boards), but since they are the league’s rebounding team (with an average of 48.3 per contest), it is important that they win the battle of the boards against their rivals. In the two meetings between the teams, La Salle hauled down 45 and 43 rebounds, respectively, while Ateneo grabbed 45 and 41 boards.

La Salle’s Defense– La Salle finished the elimination round as the best defensive team in the league, holding down their opponents to just 65 points per contest. But in their two matches against the Blue Eagles, they surrendered 71 and 77 points, respectively. In order for them to pull the rug from under the defending champs, they would have to do it on the defensive end and stop Ateneo’s offense dead in its tracks.

Ryan Buenafe– Norman Black noticed that when the Archers opt to double Greg Slaughter when the former University of Visayas player touches the leather, it is Ryan Buenafe who inadvertently gets left open. And in their second round match, he used and exploited this observation to the hilt, using Slaughter primarily as a decoy as Buenafe burned the hoops for a career-high 24 points. Forget the guy’s stats, he just relishes making the biggest plays for the Blue Eagles. Preventing another career game from him should be written on the whiteboard in the Archers’ dug-out.

The Shock Troopers– La Salle has Jeron Teng, Almond Vosotros, and Norbert Torres as their leading scorers, while Ateneo has the triumvirate Kiefer Ravena, Greg Slaughter, and Nico Salva. Both the Archers and the Eagles boast of the most productive set of players off the pine, and any contributions from La Salle’s bench mob will bode well for their chances of derailing Ateneo’s Drive for Five.

La Salle’s Turnovers: Despite their ferocious fightback against the Tamaraws during their last game, La Salle actually turned the ball over 25 times which the boys from Morayta put to good use by converting into 19 turnover points. The Blue Eagles, however, thrive in fastbreak points and easy transition baskets that are by-products of turnovers. If the Green Archers can limit their turnovers, then we won’t be seeing Ravena, Tiongson, or any other Blue Eagle heading a footrace and finishing an easy lay-up.

Arnold Van Opstal and Norbert Torres– Abanilla’s decision to play the six-foot-eight Van Opstal and the six-foot-six Torres worked wonders for La Salle against FEU, and they will be tested once more against the Blue Eagles. Norbert Torres’s production has pretty much served as a good barometer for the Archers: In most of their wins, he posts double-doubles and shoots well from the field, while in most of their losses, he struggles with his shot and gets outplayed by the opposing big men. Can Torres duplicate his monster game against the Tamaraws? If he can, then we could be looking at a fourth Ateneo-La Salle meeting this season.

THAT Opening Ateneo Onslaught- During the first game between the two teams, the first quarter ended with Ateneo leading by a dozen points, 20-8. The second meeting between the teams followed a similar script, with the Eagles leading 26-10 after the first frame. And while the Archers were able to chip into these leads as the games wore on, their chances of winning increases if they manage to keep in step with Ateneo right from the opening tip and all the way until the game’s dying seconds.