No rivalry in Philippine sports rivals the confrontation between La Salle and Ateneo.
In academics, they wage mental warfare. In business, one school brags that Danding Cojuangco started kindergarted in 1940 and finished high school in a green-colored campus; the other school boasts of Manny Pangilinan graduating cum laude (Economics). In the halls of power, Michael Dino and Bong Go finished management courses from DLSU while Carlos Dominguez III and Silvestre Bello III received diplomas whose leather covers are colored blue. But above all, the tug-of-war is best exemplified in the arena called sports.
Yesterday at 3:30 p.m., the dream finale that both campuses envisioned became real. (I did not have time to write this piece chronicling Game 1 but will focus on their history.)
The first La Salle-Ateneo skirmish happened in 1939. In the final of the NCAA men’s championship, La Salle won, 27-23. Yes, no wrong typing there; the score in that contest 77 years ago was that low. Since then, the duel has flourished.
Since 1939, the two schools have taken turns winning. The next time they met in the NCAA finals was in 1958; on this occasion, the game was high scoring (105-103) with Ateneo claiming victory. In 1974 (the last time they’ll meet in the NCAA Finals), it was La Salle’s turn, 90-80.
When the battle shifted to the UAAP, they met four times in the championship. In 1988, ADMU bested DLSU in only one game because they held the twice-to-beat advantage. Three years later, La Salle recovered the trophy, winning the Game 3 decider, 93-88. The following year (2002), it was another third-game thriller but with Ateneo victorious, 77-70. And finally, in 2008, it was a clean two-game sweep as the Chris Tiu-led Blue Eagles (with Rabeh Al-Hissaini, Nonoy Baclao and Ryan Buenafe) won with Norman Black as head coach. It would be the start of an incredible five-year winning streak for the Blue Eagles.
The next year, in 2013, who would dethrone the champs to claim bragging rights? Who else but the Green Archers. In all, both squads have won eight UAAP men’s collegiate basketball crowns. How closer can this rivalry get?
With the 2016 season, La Salle dominated. Led by the MVP (and former Cebu cager) Ben Mbala, the green team were unbeatable. In the first round, they not only demolished all their opponents but embarrassed the blue squad, 97-81. That was in Oct. 2. Then, it looked like La Salle was en route to a clean sweep of the eliminations… before one team slapped their daydream and woke them up. It was, of course, Ateneo who scored the lone upset (83-71).
Who’s favored to win the trophy? Ateneo has the momentum. They won the last time they met and have won their last six elimination games and, including the escape over FEU last Wednesday, they’ve won six of their last seven. Plus, maybe the Archers are rusty after a 10-day gap before yesterday’s Game 1.
La Salle? Heavy favorites. Prior to the Final Four, they finished with a 13-1 slate. Ben Mbala is unstoppable, playing with these regular-season averages: 20.6 PPG, 16 RPG and 2.4 BPG — all first in the league. When you study the team statistics, La Salle leads in all but one of the nine departments, including points per game (88.1 average) and rebounds (52.3 per game).
My pick? It’s hard to bet against the university located along Taft Avenue. Plus, I’m biased. I studied eight years in La Salle Bacolod and suited the green jersey as we won the city-wide elementary title. Also, my uncle Rey Pages, my dad’s younger brother, played for the Green Archers in the 1970s before he turned pro with Crispa and Utex.
My head (analysis) and history (past schooling) go with La Salle. But times have changed… since our only child Jana Marie has enrolled in the campus along Katipunan Avenue, my green mind has turned blue-blooded.