The pandemic forced the UAAP to cancel its festivities in 2020 and 2021, so this year has been a special treat for its fans with two separate seasons held in 2023.
The typical nine-month offseason usually allows collegiate rivalries to die down, so the abridged offseason between UAAP Season 84 and 85 has only helped fan the flames of the rivalry between the UP Fighting Maroons and the ADMU Blue Eagles.
It has only been seven months since JD Cagulangan hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat the Blue Eagles and give the Fighting Maroons their first title since 1986. Today, the stage is set for the UAAP Season 85 Finals where, for the second time this calendar year, Ateneo and UP are squaring up for the most prestigious collegiate basketball championship in the country.
The Blue Eagles and Fighting Maroons split their season series this year before finishing first and second, respectively, after the double round robin elimination round. They made quick work of their Final Four match-ups and are now ready for what figures to be another classic best-of-three showdown.
UP center Malick Diouf, who was crowned the Finals Most Valuable Player in UP’s win in UAAP 84, will once again lead the charge for his team in this year’s Finals. He averaged 10.8 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.8 blocks this season to secure his first UAAP Most Valuable Player award.
Diouf’s battle with his Ateneo counterpart, 6’10 Ange Kouame, will most likely determine the outcome of these Finals. Kouame has not yet fully recovered from a meniscal sprain and partial ACL tear that he reportedly suffered five months ago, but the Ateneo veteran remains a towering presence on both ends of the floor. He still managed to finish third in this season’s UAAP MVP race despite not having the typical burst that the Blue Eagle faithful have grown accustomed to since his debut in 2018.
The availability of the Fighting Maroons’ sophomore forward Carl Tamayo will be another crucial storyline. The 21-year-old phenom prematurely exited UP’s Final Four game against the NU Bulldogs with an ankle sprain and the gravity of this injury has yet to be revealed.
Tamayo was a breakout star in last season’s Finals as a rookie and led the Fighting Maroons with 20 points in their first round overtime victory versus Ateneo. Without Tamayo, it will be an uphill climb for UP to overcome their opponents who seem to be peaking at the right time.
The Blue Eagles have not lost since their November 2 loss to the NU Bulldogs and are riding a six-game winning streak, which includes a 75-67 win over UP in the second round, into the Finals. Kouame flashed his dominant form in that morale-boosting win as he put up 14 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, two blocks, and zero turnovers.
There is no clear favorite or underdog heading into this championship round and the only guarantee is that it will be a thrilling showdown. Ateneo seems to have a slight edge based on their recent form, yet it is difficult to count out these gutsy Fighting Maroons.
The Blue Eagles are looking to reclaim the title after winning a three-peat prior to the pandemic while UP is hoping that it can begin a dynasty of its own with a rare second title in the same calendar year.
The opening game of this best-of-three series begins on Sunday, December 11, at the Mall of Asia Arena.