By John Bryan Ulanday
UNBLEMISHED pacer Ateneo is determined to break away while University of the Philippines (UP) and La Salle hope to stay within striking distance when they test separate counterparts in front of the returning collegiate fans in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Season 84 at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Spectators for the first time will be allowed to watch live in the venue starting on Tuesday, heating up the four-game UAAP wars nearing the end of the first round headlined by the Blue Eagles’ bid for a 5-0 start.
Ateneo, the three-time defending UAAP king, tests the mettle of National University (NU) featuring the duel of brothers Dave and Shaun Ildefonso at 7 p.m. for a chance to also make it 31 straight victories since 2018.
In the opener at 10 a.m., La Salle eyes a quick rebound after becoming the latest victim of Ateneo in a 74-57 defeat over the weekend while UP shoots for a fourth win in a row against Adamson at 1 p.m. Struggling teams FEU and UE also lock horns at 4 p.m.
Wins by the Green Archers and the Fighting Maroons would arrange a battle for solo second place on Friday in a bid to keep a stone’s throw away from Ateneo nearing the second round.
But more than the crucial duels, teams beam with happiness and excitement to play in front of roaring fans once again after a week of silence behind closed doors.
“We’re really excited about it after almost two years. Hopefully, the supporters will be able to pump up the team. They could be a big help and be our ‘Sixth Man’ there,” said La Salle mentor Derrick Pumaren.
“It’s great for the fans. They’re part of the atmosphere. They’re all part of what makes UAAP a great competition,” added Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin, noting the return of the Philippine crowd to “where they belong.”
The UAAP is staging its 84th Season under a bubble setup amid the pandemic but decided to allow fans, slowly but surely, under a limited capacity for now with an assurance of the student-athletes’ health and safety.
The premier collegiate league held its first four playdates without an in-game crowd including the Ateneo-La Salle rivalry last Saturday that could have attracted a full-house gate attendance.