Live and Let Die - UAAP Game 16 Ateneo 69 vs UST 64
by Rick Olivares
(Thanks to Nono Felipe for the pictures)
September 23, 2007
1:00pm UST Locker Room
University of Santo Tomas Coach Alfredo “Pido” Jarencio addressed his players before he sent them out for an early shoot-around. “Simple lang ‘to,” said the man who during his professional ball days was known as the Fireman of the fabled never-say-die Ginebra San Miguel team. “Gusto niyo na magbakasyon o gusto niyo pa maglaro? Ewan ko sa inyo pero gusto ko pa maglaro.” The defending champs let out a resounding whoop to move on.
1:30pm outside the Ateneo Locker Room
“The NU game rudely reminded us that when opportunity knocks you better grab hold of it,” said Ateneo Coach Norman Black before the game. “No doubt it was doubly disappointing because we didn’t get the job done also against La Salle. Now it’s a long hard road, but I figure we have a lot of fight left in us. We’d like nothing more than another crack at moving on.”
1:45pm Patron section Ateneo side
Macky Chan looked resplendent in blue. He’s never missed a game of the Ateneo Blue Eagles even if he only gets to watch on television. You see, the 27-year old has cerebral palsy, but on this day, nothing was going to keep him from watching his first live Ateneo game and cheer for the blue and white. “One more,” he said echoing Black’s and every Atenean’s sentiments. “One more.”
More than three years ago Zion Laterre and Mike Baldos spearheaded Ateneo Team B’s drive for the Fr. Martin II championship. After pacing the league during the eliminations, the team fell to Arellano University in the semifinals. Laterre moved up to Team A the following season while the closest Baldos got to a call up was in Larry Fonacier’s final game in a Blue Eagle uniform in the Collegiate Champions League. It was a short stint for the team was shown the door by UP.
For much of his stay in Ateneo after changing zip codes along with Ford Arao and Yuri Escueta, his teammates in San Beda High, Baldos was always one of the last cuts for Team A. Despite being blessed with a plethora of pretzel-like post moves, he was oft chided for his soft defense. We shook hands at the south gate as the team and the coaching staff arrived. “Get ready, Mike,” I said as we made our way in. “Just think about those days in Team B when you’d score on those guys guarding you.”
Baldos smiled and softly replied, “Sana may pagkakataon mag-contribute.”
“That doesn’t seem too long ago, right,” said Laterre of those Team B days as he stretched out on the sidelines. “Those were good times, but we’re living in better ones. If we have an opportunity to win a championship, then it’ll be the best. But even if we don’t win anything, I’ll always remember this. It could be all over, but we’ll try our best to play for one more day.” Interestingly it was former UST player Long David who brought Laterre to Ateneo thinking that the balance of academics and athletics would serve him well after his playing days.
As the Blue Eagles retreated to their locker room to change into their game uniforms, one of the Araneta Coliseum ushers had this to say, “Mas magaling yung players ng UST pero sa puso, Ateneo talaga.”
It wasn’t the start Ateneo was looking for. After Ford Arao gave Ateneo its first lead of the game with a nifty jump hook over Jervy Cruz to go up 2-0, the Tigers unleashed nine straight points that sent the UST gallery cheering several decibels louder. With Eric Salamat (who was making his second start) and Jai Reyes unable to orchestrate the offense, Chris Tiu, Yuri Escueta, and Kirk Long entered the fray.
Although UST led after the first quarter 18-10, the Blue Eagles’ offense was finally roused out of its slumber. In this season, Ateneo is 4-2 in games decided by three points or less and 6-1 after leading at the end of the third quarter.
But over the last four campaigns, the Tigers have been an unlikely nemesis. In Seasons 68 & 69, the Espana dribblers dealt Ateneo second round losses that haunted them down the road. Two of the last five matches have been blowout wins by UST. The Loyolans’ two victories were by the skin of the teeth – including the last one that had Thomasians lamenting, “na-Kramer na naman kami.”
If ever, Ateneo needed to win convincingly if only to partially slay last year’s ghosts. And besides, it was win or go home time so there was no holding back.
A hallmark of Norman Black’s coaching has been his ability to get his senior players to reach their full potential. In his first year during Season 68, which coincidentally was LA Tenorio’s last, the Blue Eagle point guard led the team in scoring, three-point shooting, assists, and steals (not to mention being one of the team’s leading rebounders). Last year it was Macky Escalona, Doug Kramer, and JC Intal who took the spotlight. And this campaign, it has been the previously underused Escueta, the underachieving Arao, and the untapped Laterre who have stepped up. Unknown to many, Laterre wasn’t 100% in the first round because of tendonitis. “We don’t make a habit of publicly announcing our injuries,” explained the Ateneo mentor. “But as you can see now that he's healthier, he contributes to the team in so many ways.”
After a slim 32-30 halftime lead, Arao, Laterre, and Nonoy Baclao put on a block party; the Blue Eagles finally established control in spite of the spotty officiating. Although Arao (17 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 block), Chris Tiu (14 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists), and Baclao (11 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 blocks – he has a total of 17 in the past three matches) once more led the team, it was the seldom used Baldos who was the surprise package.
The 6’3” forward once he has his confidence going could probably be the team’s best low post player (you should have seen this guy on Team B). Given an opportunity to play meaningful minutes in such a high-stakes match, Baldos reciprocated in a big way. He spun into the lane for a stretch lay-up, hit 5-of-6 free throws and pulled down an offensive rebound. Not to mention helping play great defense on Jervy Cruz who after scoring 10 points in the first half was limited to 7 markers off a horrendous 1-12 shooting clip.
With Cruz mostly ineffective on the offensive end and the fiery Khasim Mirza misfiring and unable to provide that dose of energy, the Tigers looked for someone to step up. Forward Mark Canlas provided sporadic scoring but on the defensive end, there was no way he was stopping Arao or Baclao. So Jarencio sent in Francis Allera for the first time in the game to see what he could do to awaken UST’s outside artillery.
The Tigers’ three-point shooting is a staple of their offense. Ranked third in the league in the total number of three-pointers served (behind NU and UE respectively), they had hit only one so far in the contest and with time running out in the third. After Francis Allera hit a three-ball to threaten at 47-48, the key to Ateneo winning the game hinged on the very next play. They had to score and make a stop at the opposite end to finish the third canto on a high note.
Rabah Al-Husseini is an enigma. Despite his 6’7” frame, he has more often than not played soft. He has been clueless on defense and unable to provide a presence in the lane when Baclao or Arao are on the bench. It is a fact that opponents have exploited that’s why guards like Marcy Arellano and Japs Cuan love driving on him in the lane. “Ginagawang asintahan” joked one basketball wag. But in the last two games, Al-Husseini has brought his A-game by rediscovering that sweet jumper of his (he has one of the best shooting forms and backspin in the league) and playing tough D. The junior center hit three free throws to provide breathing space at 51-47 and hauled down a pair of rebounds to stymie the Tigers’ rally.
With the Eagles’ frontline doing serious damage, Eric Salamat, who is perhaps better suited off the bench, schooled Japs Cuan and Jun Cortez with several ankle breakers on top of the key. His final free throw ended the scoring at 69-64 to the delirious celebration on the blue side of the coliseum.
“Hindi pa tapos. Hindi pa tapos,” emphasized Arao as teammates hugged him on centercourt.
For Eric Salamat moving to the next stage and eliminating UST was gratifying, but the only way they will be able to leave behind last year’s haunting loss is another crack at the title where they’re up against the pre-season favorites DLSU and UE (should they make it all the way). “We’re sorry we lost the second seed, but we’ve got another chance. We’re going to give that one big fight. Now it’s La Salle.”
Over at the UST side, a tearful Pido Jarencio failed to control his emotions. “Kasalanan ko,” he bemoaned. “Ako nagturo sa mga bata nung sistema. Malungkot ako kasi na-disappoint yung Thomasian community. Pero proud ako sa mga bata ko.”
Last year, I wrote that Jarencio was a very good coach who got a previously underachieving team to raise their game. The Tigers despite losing last year’s finals MVP Jojo Duncil one week prior to the start of the season eventually found their groove and gave everyone fits. And borrowing a line from the Ateneo Blue Eagles circa 1988 -- great champions die hard -- the game was no walk in the park for the Blue Eagles. And ever the classy coach, Jarencio paid tribute to Ateneo after the game. “Never i-underestimate ‘yong pusong Atenista.”
Monday, September 24, 2007
Live and Let Die - UAAP Game 16 Ateneo 69 vs UST 64