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Under the radar and overlooked.
Not many believed that the National University Bulldogs and Far Eastern University Tamaraws were capable of seriously contending for the title this year. These are two teams that had to recalibrate their respective rosters after losing several core players from Season 76. Without the constant scrutiny and expectations hanging over them like a dark cloud, each thrived under solid foundations built by Bulldogs head coach Eric Altamirano and Tamaraws head coach Nash Racela. And for poetic justice, the Bulldogs and Tamaraws will now face each other in the UAAP Season 77 Finals thanks to these structured systems, summed up in each squad’s last play against their respective Final Four foes.
The Bulldogs stamped their defensive class with Alfred Aroga’s emphatic rejection on MVP Kiefer Ravena’s layup in the dying seconds. On the other side of the bracket, the Tamaraws executed their pristine offense to perfection, capped by Mac Belo’s right corner three coming from Mike Tolomia’s hand-off pass and screen combo that drove the stake into the repeat hopes of the defending champion De La Salle Green Archers.
For National U, returning to the Finals for the first time since 1970 carries greater value after a blown opportunity last season. The Bulldogs turned the tables and overcame a twice-to-beat disadvantage, a year removed from being the ones sent to the pound in the same manner by the UST Growling Tigers. But one has to look even further back in the history books to see when the Bulldogs reigned above everyone else. That last happened in 1954, 60 round years ago.
That drought is not as prominent in Morayta, but the Tamaraws and their faithful and very patient crowd have been left wanting as well. After hoisting the trophy in 2005, the Tamaraws have been plagued with meltdown after meltdown whether inside or outside the hardwood. After coming up short against the Ateneo Blue Eagles in their Finals appearances in 2010 and 2011, the Tamaraws hope that this unit is capable of putting them over the top at long last.
If the two regular season meetings is any indication of things to come, viewers will be in for a treat. FEU won the first meeting last August 9, 71-62, behind Carl Cruz’ 16 points. Eight days later, FEU would again emerge on top, 74-70, but not before National U forced an extra five minutes. This time, it was the one-two punch of Belo and Tolomia who led the way for the Tamaraws with 23 and 18 points, respectively.
This will be a thrilling series, a stylistic clash of principles that will not go to the dogs or be sent off to pasture, pun intended.
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Coach: Nash Racela vs Eric Altamirano
These are two intelligent mentors who preach contrasting approaches to the game. Altamirano is very keen on dissecting defensive patterns since he stepped on the big stage in the PBA with the Purefoods Corned Beef Cowboys back in 1997. Coach E has integrated his knowledge to a unit that arguably boasts of the UAAP’s most intimidating presence in Aroga. More importantly, he brought out the best in his RP Youth standouts, most notably Gelo Alolino.
On the other hand, Racela is the steadying presence of FEU, clearly seen when the team struggled on both ends against inferior squads in his absence during his assistant coaching stint with Gilas Pilipinas in the FIBA World Cup.
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Point Guard: Achie Iñigo vs Gelo Alolino
Alolino was the unsung hero of National U’s Finals berth. Aroga’s defensive stop would have been for naught had Alolino failed to convert his clutch free throws with 9.3 seconds remaining. The pacemaker of the Bulldogs’ attack, he thrives in transition and can create shots for teammates in a jiffy.
Iñigo has filled in admirably for the giant hole left in the backcourt. He is a sound backcourt mate who has enough foot speed to force defenders to keep in step with him and he has knocked enough outside shots to earn the respect of the defense. How he’ll manage to stay in front of Alolino will be a daunting challenge.
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Shooting Guard: Mike Tolomia vs Paolo Javelona
Javelona had the unenviable task of slowing down Ravena in the Final Four, and this time he’ll be matched or cross-matched against the league’s best combo guard. He is a pesky defender who can get under his opponent’s skin and it will be on him to throw Tolomia off his rhythm for majority of his minutes on the floor.
Tolomia has been a breath of fresh air for the Tamaraws. He is one of very few players in recent memory capable of toeing the line between dominating the scoring column and facilitating for his teammates. A hybrid between Marc Barroca and RR Garcia, Tolomia’s constant slash-and-dash puts him in position for a point-blank shot or a trip to the foul line.
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Small Forward: Glenn Khobuntin vs Roger Pogoy
Khobuntin is the prototypical small forward. A capable wing defender and midrange shooter, he will be expected to spend more time under the basket fighting for loose balls against FEU’s imposing frontcourt.
Pogoy answered questions regarding his tweener status. Is he a three or a four? In this scenario, he slides to small forward as he stretches the floor with his shooting. And with his built than can pass for that of a power forward, he can set mean picks for Tolomia and Iñigo to wreak havoc driving to the basket. What Pogoy has going for him this time around is that there will be no Jeron Teng barreling to the basket on every other possession.
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Power Forward: Mac Belo vs Troy Rosario
Rosario and Belo are mirror images of each other, lanky big men who have a deceptively quick first step when going face-to-face against their man. Honed with an assortment of skill sets, they can go up-and-under, slide backdoor, and take the defender off the dribble. One will be hard-pressed to find two other locals who have a knack for the ball and are as hardworking on the glass.
The slight nod goes to Belo if only because FEU relies on him more during the final minutes of the game, even way before the dagger three that propelled them into the Finals. The offensive prowess also favors Belo’s way since Rosario’s game only extends until midrange.
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Center: Anthony Hargrove vs Alfred Aroga
Two behemoths that alter offensive schemes, Aroga and Hargrove serve as the defensive anchor. National U’s slotman always initiates a block party whenever an unsuspecting opponent thinks he has a free lane to the hoop. Aroga is expected to shoulder more of the offensive workload, serving up numerous second chance points and crashing the boards for tip-ins.
Hargrove is not strategically deployed in the same manner as Aroga. FEU does not need him to be as involved as the offense, letting him be the last resort when their schemes go awry. In order for Hargrove to be a factor in this series, he has to keep himself out of foul trouble, an issue that has plagued him throughout his UAAP career.
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X-Factor: Carl Cruz vs Rev Diputado
It is uncommon for a rookie to be considered an X-Factor, but that is exactly what Diputado brings to the table. He is a change of pace guard whose reckless abandon is his asset. He is Alolino’s foil in the sense that he likes finding shots for himself and does so with remarkable efficiency, comparable to that of other guards who have been around longer in the collegiate ranks.
Carl Cruz has stepped into the bruiser role that FEU has sorely missed from the moment Russel Escoto was sidelined for the remainder season with a separated shoulder. Cruz is also a dangerous asset from downtown and can force National U’s bigs to step out and challenge his shot, freeing the lane for the likes of Tolomia, Iñigo, Francis Tamsi, and Ron Dennison.
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Prediction: These are two sound basketball programs that true basketball aficionados can embrace. It does not carry the history and subplots of an Ateneo-La Salle pupu platter, but those who believe that this series will be any less captivating are only fooling themselves.
A series that features an elite offense against an elite defense deserves a primetime slot on national television. There is no distinct matchup advantage for either squad, but after seeing Belo explode for 15, 32, and 23 points in his last three games, FEU clearly has the best player entering the series, which is usually what it boils down to when push comes to shove.
Tamaraws in three.