Sunday, 7 October 2012 3,532 Views / 154 Comments
The Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles are a step closer to achieving something historic, something unparalleled, in the Final Four era.
If they play their cards right, this will be the perfect send-off to the coach who helped right the basketball program in Loyola Heights, the coach who has, as of this writing, amassed 109 wins in 135 UAAP games for Ateneo.
One step closer. One step away.
From making history.
Or repeating it.
This is, after all, also how the 2006 UAAP Finals opposite UST started, with the Eagles escaping with a close win in Game 1. Thank you, Doug Kramer.
And then came the Game 2 blowout, and the Game 3 collapse.
The set-up is all too eerie to discount, but, for the Ateneans, the payoff might be all the sweeter.
Especially if Nico Salva’s Game 2 offense continues to be even just nearly as good as what he showed in Game 1.
How good was Nico? Let’s see.
The former LSGH and San Beda standout registered 30 big points on 14-of-23 FG shooting, while also grabbing 5 rebounds, dishing out 2 assists, and getting 1 steal. The kid was just all over, matching the intensity and skill put forth by another former Bedan, Aljon Mariano. What Salva was for the Eagles, Mariano was for the Tigers. The come-backing combo forward put up an impressive double-double line, scoring 22 points, collaring 12 caroms, and dishing out 5 dimes while shooting 9-of-15 from the floor.
Another insane match-up was the one played on the wings between the troika of Kiefer Ravena, Juami Tiongson, and Ryan Buenafe for Ateneo, and the duo of Jeric Teng and Kevin Ferrer for UST.
Ravena, Tiongson, and Buenafe combined for 35 points, while Teng and Ferrer paired up for 38 markers. All of those guys hit big shots and made big plays throughout the game, but the Blue Eagle trio stood out as their makes in the endgame proved to be the most critical. Buenafe’s 6-point binge in the space of 30 seconds gave Ateneo a 7-point lead, while Juami Tiongson’s two drives provided added cushion. Of course, no shot was bigger that Kiefer’s 20-footer over Mariano with 9 seconds to go. That shot pegged the final score and officially sent Ateneo to Game 2 with a 1-0 series advantage.
This is not to say Teng and Ferrer clammed up in crunch time. Teng, in particular, was superb, hitting two treys in the final minute that undoubtedly sent not a few people’s blood pressures rising. I even think he had a good case to shoot three more free throws in the endgame. Not that it would have made any difference in terms of the game result, of course, unless someone was engaged in a shady numbers game.
Beyond the spectacular feats of the aforementioned players, however, I believe the biggest difference in this game was the performance of one of Ateneo’s most unheralded assets – Justin Chua.
Chua posted 9 points on 4-of-8 FG shooting. That’s not exactly out-of-this-world awesome, but when one considers that both teams’ starting centers, Greg Slaughter and Karim Abdul, were having below-par games, Chua’s contribution should come up as extremely pivotal. Consider, too, that prior to this game, Chua normed just 3 points in Ateneo’s last 4 outings, and scored a total of just 3 points this season in the Katipunan quintet’s two previous encounters versus the España five.
And then he drops 9 markers, which is four more than Greg’s total and exactly the same as Abdul’s. Needless to say, the former Chiang Kai Shek standout and Tiong Lian MVP stepped up big time.
And he’ll probably need to step up again in Game 2, especially since the Tigers really seem to have Greg all figured out. Without Erram out there, and with UST probably shifting its interior defense to clamp down on Nico, Chua’s performance could be the barometer of both teams’ championship fortunes.
So on to the next (perhaps the last?) game of the season.
Ateneo is just one away from a fifth straight title, but, more importantly, just one away from exorcising the demons of six years ago. Again, the situation seems eerily appropriate – Ateneo will try to wrap things up in the exact place where they lost the Season 69 title, in the same place where UST rallied from a 19-point deficit to beat them in the first round.
Can UST repeat the feat and force a third game, or will Ateneo finally dispel its demons and give Norman Black the perfect parting present?
All bets are off. We’re all a step closer to finding out on Thursday.
As if this series needed any more dramatic overtures, we have Coach Pido Jarencio of UST unleashing his ad hominem regarding the officiating.
It’s all fitting, of course, since this is the UAAP, where everyone remembers to blame game officials, and elevate protests to the board. This is the UAAP, where everyone forgets to just play through the breaks of the game (both on and off the court).
This is the UAAP – unbreakable.
More like unbelievable.
I think Coach Pido’s comments are off-kilter for two reasons.
First, all season long, his Tigers have risen above adversity on their own merit. He himself labeled a good number of their wins as tsamba. They’re the Comeback Cats. They have proven, repeatedly, that they could overturn any deficit and rally for a big win. This is due to their depth. This is due to their firepower. This is due to their persistence. This is why, for several weeks, UST was atop my own Power Rankings. Complaining about the officiating in such a brazen manner dilutes the efforts of his wards, whether that effect is intended or not. It also skews the focus from the real, tangible, factors of Ateneo’s comeback win – Nico dropping 30 and the big shots of Juami, Ryan, and Kiefer down the stretch.
Second, a glance at the stat-sheet reveals that, if anything, Coach Pido may have a point – maninipis nga yung tawag. The strange thing, however, is that the numbers imply that UST benefitted from most of the calls. Let’s look at the fourth quarter. Ateneo was tagged with 7 fouls, while UST was tagged with just 3. The Tigers, in fact, only committed two fouls until Abdul’s reach-in (his fifth foul) in the dying seconds. What’s more, UST was awarded 10 free throws in the fourth quarter, while Ateneo was given just 1. Overall, UST shot 26 freebies, while Ateneo attempted only 12. Foul calls and free throws, of course, aren’t the be-all and end-all of officiating, but the disparity in the numbers is pretty compelling especially when one considers that the self-proclaimed aggrieved party is the one with LESS fouls and MORE free throws.
I’m quite certain, though, that Coach Pido was just caught up in the moment, overwhelmed by his passion, and swamped by the bitter taste of yet another close loss to Ateneo. I’m also certain he knows that any more commentary about the refereeing from either end of the championship spectrum would just fuel speculation and provide fertile ground for distraction. Because of this, I am 110% sure he’ll spend the next few days just prepping his boys for one hell of a Game 2 instead of harping about the officiating.
This is what having high stakes can do to any man. This underscores the importance, the significance, of this series and of this championship.
Unbreakable and unbelievable. Only in the UAAP.