28 Days Later - UAAP Game 9 Ateneo 83 vs FEU 75
Round Two UAAP Season 70
by Rick Olivares
August 25, 2007
Ninoy Aquino Stadium
The Return of the King
In the midst of La Salle’s wholesale slaughter of a hapless UP squad, an old warrior entered the Upper A section of the Ninoy Aquino Stadium trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. But some people recognized him, even supporters of rival schools. After all, how many times did he and his Ateneo teams issue their own brand of heartbreak on the court en route to a near three-peat some 20 years ago? After several years abroad, former Ateneo King Eagle Jun Reyes was back. His brother Len, the father of current Blue Eagle guard Jai slipped him a jersey with that familiar number five printed in front.
When Jai Reyes entered the court in the second quarter for the second round match between Ateneo and FEU, he was Mr. Instant Offense. Reyes nailed a jumper and drilled a wide-open trey after the Tamaraws foolishly left him alone. They were to be his only points of the game, but they boosted Ateneo to a 36-31 lead. For many of those who were around to see the uncle Jun make those booming shots back in the late 1980’s, it was a nice feeling of déjà vu to have another Reyes on the floor. Maybe this year’s model could lead Ateneo back to another title (the senior Reyes was in his third year when he won successive MVP Awards while leading Ateneo to back-to-back titles).
But first there was a score to settle.
Revenge is a dish served cold
Twenty-eight days ago, in the careless moment of overconfidence, the FEU Tamaraws pounced on an Ateneo team giddy over its first round beating of De La Salle. The 77-64 loss precipitated a three-game losing skein that put the season on the brink of collapse.
The third straight loss to UE was the last bit of action for the team because of a series of game cancellations owing to stormy weather. The momentary lull allowed the team to get back to basics and for injured rookie Raymond Austria to get back into circulation after a knee injury. For the first time in five weeks, the team was whole again and they couldn’t wait to get back on the court and repay FEU in spades.
In the last encounter, the Tams’ plethora of tall and rangy swingmen oft converted on Ateneo’s horrendous 30 turnovers (the Blue Eagles dubiously led the league in TO’s in the first round). After being down by a deuce at the end of the first quarter, FEU seized on the poor shooting and debilitating turnovers of Ateneo to score 25 points (to our 11) to break the game wide open. It was enough of a buffer to hold Ateneo off and that win of theirs bolstered their confidence.
In place of a “sure win” that would have installed us at solo second, we dropped into a tie with DLSU.
The day before the FEU game, at an adidas function in Trinoma in Quezon City, junior guard Reyes related how the team was itching to get back on track even if they were going right through the heart of order – FEU, UST, and DLSU. “We could have been the team to hand UE their first loss,” he said. “But now, we’re in a tight spot. This is where we’ll see what we’re really made of.”
And what FEU saw was a new wrinkle in Ateneo’s offense. Yuri Escueta has at times been the forgotten man. Despite it being his final playing year, he has hardly seen any meaningful minutes on the floor. But on this day, Ateneo coach Norman Black started Escueta and put him on counterpart Andy Barroca. Escueta is an excellent defensive guard who can drive and dish and his inclusion had an instantaneous effect on the team. The frenetic pace and pound-it-inside game served notice to their first round tormentors that this was a different Ateneo team they were now facing. And they were going to take the full measure of the new and improved Ford Arao.
For years, Arao was best known for making a cameo appearance by scoring a bucket then taking a seat afterwards on account of accumulated fouls or errors or whichever came first. If he scored then it was cause for celebration and he would egg the crowd to cheer louder. This year, armed with a new attitude, this year’s co-captain has seen his game flourish. After hardly making an impact during the first round encounter versus the Tams, Arao finished with his best scoring match in a Blue Eagle uniform -- a game high 22 points (his best game ever would be that first outing of the season against Adamson where he tallied 20 points and hauled down 15 boards). But what was also incredible about his performance was aside from playing his usual enforcer role, he beat the Tamaraw big and small men twice on fastbreaks. This from a guy who probably jumps no higher than the yellow pages.
Long range artillery
With a quarter left to play and both teams battling to a near standstill, it became apparent that all it would take is one run to put the other team away. FEU took first crack at it courtesy of Ric Cawaling and Marlon Adolfo who hit back-to-back threes to start the fourth quarter that gave FEU its penultimate taste of the lead at 63-61.
Chris Tiu who had his best shooting game so far in the season (he shot better than 50% from everywhere on the court and finished with 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists), answered with a three of his own to calm down the blue faithful.
Reil Cervantes would knock in a twenty-footer that put FEU once more in the lead at 65-64, but a Rabah Al-Husseini free throw tied it with time down to seven minutes. Now it was Ateneo’s turn.
Earlier in the third quarter when FEU was running long-armed guards to harass Chris Tiu, Norman Black pulled his gunner out for a breather. In a sign of bench depth, the team held with Tiu on the sidelines and Jai Reyes quiet the rest of the way. Now back in the pay-off period, Tiu knocked in a trey from the left corner pocket to give Ateneo a 68-65 lead. Eman Monfort would throw in another one this time from the right side of the arc to hike the lead to 71-65 and the FEU Coach Glenn Capacio called for time.
For three quarters, FEU’s Marnel Baracael almost single-handedly kept the Tams in the fight by posting up Nonoy Baclao or nailing huge threes. In fact, he shot for a blistering 70% accuracy clip for the whole game. But by the fourth, Norman Black’s boys finally put the clamps on him and he only had four meaningless touches the rest of the game.
And then it was Ford Arao time.
In the Season 70 opener against Adamson, there was a stretch where it seemed that it was Ford Arao versus Patrick Cabahug. Of course, Cabahug is a conscience-less sniper who believes a pass is something a man makes at a woman so he top-scored 28-20. Only Arao made an incredible 64% of his field goals as opposed to Cabahug who only ranged for 33%.
Now with this high velocity match reaching its final outcome, Ateneo took control during a crucial two-minute stretch. Arao scored eight straight points to pad Ateneo’s lead 79-68. From the 4:02 game clock, FEU would only score eight more points from a motley crew of Jens Knuttel, Ron Cabagnot, Benedict Fernandez, and Barroca while Tiu, Eric Salamat (7 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists), and Zion Laterre (9 points and 7 boards) chipped in four more Ateneo markers to end the game at 83-75.
And that ancient Ateneo hymn Fly High broke from the stands and 28 days later, Ateneo had its revenge.
It was a joyous Ateneo crowd that broke into the alma mater afterwards. Said one Ateneo photographer, “I had almost forgotten what it was like to win.” Oh, ye of little faith. “One game at a time,” said Jai Reyes as the team headed to the dugout.
Over by the Upper A section, the King still sat quietly albeit with a wide grin on his face and gave his verdict -- he flashed a thumbs up sign.
For the Reyeses -- Chot, Mike, Jun, Billy, and Len -- one of the most awesome hoops-playing families I’ve ever seen. Thanks for the memories and here’s to Jai and Ice continuing the legacy.