They say sports is the great equalizer. It’s the best chance for an underdog to get back at its tormentor. Remember Rocky Balboa? Or the Washington Sentinels in The Replacements? Or Daniel Larusso in Karate Kid?
But what if the two rivals are on even keel? What if they’re at par with each other in all fronts, and as such, have become rivals? Greatest rivals even?
This is the story of the Philippines’ greatest collegiate rivalry, bar none, in history. Whether in academics, prestige, even affection for women—the competition is just as intense.
And now, we have the Ateneo Blue Eagles and the De La Salle Green Archers figuring for the ninth time in collegiate basketball finals history. Their matchup stats? Believe it or not, it’s four-all heading to Saturday’s Game 1 of the UAAP Season 80. They tangled in 1939, 1958, and 1974 while both were still with the NCAA, and in 1988, 2001, 2002, 2008, and last season in the UAAP. Winning this year’s championship makes things even sweeter.
As we wait with bated breath for the initial toss-up that will herald the opening game of their latest face-off, FHM lists down five of the greatest championship games between these two institutions. As elder and younger fans may dispute which one is the best all-time, we’ve decided to list these down in chronological sequence.
1939 NCAA Finals – Rizal Memorial Coliseum
This was the first time the two teams played in the Finals. Ateneo was the solid choice, having had the most number of titles since its inception in 1924 with five. La Salle wasn't expected to be there, but pre-tournament favorites San Beda and defending champions Letran got waylaid. The Eagles finished the elimination round heading to the Finals unscathed and was poised to win the championship with an unbeaten record. But the Archers succeeded in slowing down the game, winning a close 27-23—yup, that’s the final score—that signaled what many believed was the start of their rivalry. The day after, La Sallians pelted the Ateneo campus along Padre Faura in Manila with fried chicken, in reference to how the Eagles got roasted in the Finals.
1988 UAAP Finals – Rizal Memorial Coliseum
Your titos and titas would probably claim this game as perhaps the greatest ever between the two titans. La Salle was entering its third season in the league, after being "orphaned" from 1981 to 1985 when they left in the aftermath of a tumultuous rumble in the 1980 NCAA Finals against the Itoy Esguerra-led Letran Knights. It was also a special year as the Green Archers were the hosts for the first time. La Salle brought in rookie Zandro 'Jun' Limpot to go up against the highly regarded Danny Francisco of the Eagles and Benjie Paras of the Maroons at the slot. But it was the battle at the backcourt between Jun Reyes and Dindo Pumaren that caught the fancy of everyone. In the Finals, Francisco and Reyes led the team, with the latter scattering 19 points in a pulsating 76-70 victory. The former also had a thunderous slam, as well as making two clutch free throws to end up with 14 markers and seal the title. Pumaren, who led all scorers with 24, was seen in tears after the game, but his rivalry with Reyes spilled over to the PBA a few years after, including a game that saw them lock fists and being summoned the next day by Commissioner Rudy Salud.
2001 UAAP Finals – Araneta Coliseum
The Archers were on a dominant run, having won a three-peat from 1998 to 2000 and poised to win its fourth title in a row. They brought in rookies Joseph Yeo, Cholo Villanueva, Mike Gavino, and Chris Cabatu, in preparation for superstar Ren Ren Ritualo's impending departure at the end of the season. The Eagles, on the other hand, was on the last year of Coach Joe Lipa's three-year buildup program—its culmination was meant to win the championship. LA Tenorio was a rookie fresh from the San Beda Red Cubs and was Ateneo's key acquisition. But Franz Pumaren's charges had Mike Cortez, freshman Mark Cardona, and big man Carlo Sharma. The series stretched to three games, with the Archers winning Game 1, 74-68, before the Eagles knotted the series, 76-72, and sent the matchup to sudden-death. In the do-or-die, La Salle, outsteadied defiant Ateneo in the stretch, 93-88, through Sharma's dominant ways, timely baskets courtesy of BJ Manalo, and steady plays from Ritualo, Cortez and Cardona, on its way to another crown. Pumaren, in the post-game interview, described the win as extremely sweet as it avenged their Finals loss to the Eagles 13 years ago.
2002 UAAP Finals – Araneta Coliseum
The previous season saw Ateneo cracking the Finals and was expected to exact revenge against La Salle. But the Archers had other plans, dominating the league with 13 straight wins in the elimination round and looking primed to win its fifth straight championship, ahead of UST's four-peat from 1993-96. The Blue Eagles, with Joel Banal replacing touted coach Joe Lipa, was at 8-5 when they stopped La Salle's winning streak, preventing them from earning an automatic title shot with a twice-to-beat advantage. Game 1 was a nip-and-tuck affair, and with nine seconds left, Enrico Villanueva made one of two free throws to give Ateneo a precarious two-point lead. In the ensuing play, Cardona went up for one of his patented shots only to be foiled by Larry Fonacier twice, preserving the Eagles' 72-70 victory. Cortez dominated the next match, made every crucial shot that prevented Ateneo's rallies, and led his team (21 points) to an 85-77 victory. Tenorio and Fonacier proved in the third game that they were already clutch players even when they were still young, en route to a 77-70 clincher. Cortez, the hero of Game 2, mysteriously "disappeared," as he was shackled by the defense of Rich Alvarez.
2016 UAAP Finals – Araneta Coliseum
There was no denying La Salle's dominant run all season long. This would have been a boring Finals series because of the Archers' forceful performance, except that the difference in their respective games was appalling. La Salle relied on skills and individual talent, with no less than perhaps the most dominating player in UAAP history, Ben Mbala, around. The Tab Baldwin-coached Eagles, though, battled back utilizing one of the most disciplined systems ever seen in the such level. The Archers won all but one of their games in the elimination round, the lone loss dealt by Ateneo in a shocking upset. But La Salle was not having any of it in the Finals, defeating the Eagles in Game 1, 67-65, through Mbala's 20 points and 15 rebounds. They were visibly overwhelming in Game 2 (79-72), courtesy of Jeron Teng's 28 points and Mbala's 18-10, overcoming Ateneo's frequent attempts to keep the game close. Teng eventually was adjudged Finals MVP in a fitting end to his outstanding collegiate season.
This season, the Eagles have been dominating, winning its first 13 games before losing to their bitter arch rivals, preventing a sweep and the first Finals seat. Curiously, they went the same route as last year, with the Archers beating the Adamson Falcons in one game in the Final Four while the Eagles needed to win two games against the dangerous FEU Tamaraws. Game 1 would be extremely crucial in setting the tempo of the entire series.
And in a championship round that features the greatest rivals of collegiate ball, and perhaps, Philippine basketball history (with apologies to YCO-Ysmael and Crispa-Toyota), espeically with both teams trying to go 5-4 against the other, this promises to be an exciting holiday weekend for hoops fans. Will the Archers clip the Eagles' wings? Or will the Eagles claw the Archers to the ground?
Only time will tell.