Game 17 Cliffhanger
Ateneo 65 vs. La Salle 64
by rick olivares
September 26, 2007
There were some conversations that were the game and the rivalry in a nutshell.
With two minutes and twenty seconds left in the fourth meeting between the two teams in Season 70, Blue Eagle rookie Nonoy Baclao missed on a lob pass inside the shaded area by Yuri Escueta. But Baclao, bench-ridden once more due to foul trouble, was awarded two free throws to salvage the possession courtesy of a foul by La Salle’s Rico Maierhofer who seemed somewhat reticent on defense all game long.
Green Archer point guard Tyrone Tang who scored five of DLSU’s last seven points immediately went up to his teammate and slapped him on the cheek. “Just play good defense. Wag mo na i-foul,” he chided Maierhofer as his foul gave Ateneo an opportunity to chip away at the 63-58 lead while the game clock stayed put.
At crunch time, a five-point lead against Ateneo is not a luxury. In case you've watched the Blue Eagles over the last two years, you would know that they are the masters of the comeback. They are the Houdinis of the hardwood who have redefined the Hail Mary play for the new millennium. They are practitioners of Black magic so potent that it even has made Believers out of the naysayers.
And now both teams were in penalty. Maierhofer shook his head and cussed then nodded in agreement. Although Baclao made his two previous charities last time down the floor, he would miss these two as a collective groan carried from the blue side of the Araneta Coliseum.
But as he made his way back on defense, there was a grim determination on Baclao’s face to stop La Salle. And he did just that as he hauled down two crucial defensive rebounds and challenged two shots – one an ill-advised three-pointer by PJ Walsham and another drive by Jayvee Casio when he should have milked the clock – that were big stops.
The Green Archers scored a solitary point after that.
In the battle for the second seed where Ateneo lost to La Salle last September 18, DLSU supporters hung a banner from the coliseum’s northside that read, “Bawal Tiu-mamba.”
If they were making light of the Ateneo captain’s second round game winner against them, their coach Franz Pumaren wasn’t. The only ones he didn’t send to guard him were his power forwards and centers.
He sent Bader Malabes, PJ Barua, Cholo Villanueva, OJ Cua, Tang, and Casio to guard Tiu at one time or another. The physical defense worked for by halftime, the Atenean already one of the league leaders in floorburns, scored only one point off a free throw with zero attempts from the field in 11 minutes of action.
With Ateneo down 31-30 at the half, coach Norman Black made his adjustments to free Chris Tiu and to deal with the blanket defense that silenced Ateneo’s outside artillery. All 30 points were scored inside the paint with 10 of them coming from Ford Arao who at times single-handedly kept the Eagles in the game.
The adjustments worked for the Eagle captain would be shackled no more. He scored 13 points in the game’s final 20 minutes. While the final numbers weren’t huge (14 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block) he was Jordanesque when it mattered. He hit Ateneo’s one trey (out of the team's nine attempts) to cut the Archers’ lead to 64-61. After Arao hit a miraculous shot with a split-second left to inch Ateneo closer 64-63, a quick conversation between the team’s two leaders took place during the Blue Eagles’ final play of the game.
After a three-man weave above the left side of the three-point arc, Arao set a pick that freed Tiu from Malabes who was shadowing him on the play. He then handed the ball to the gunner with a two-worded instruction, “Tira mo.”
Tiu thought about pulling up for a jumper, but when he saw that Arao’s man – Walsham – was a tad slow in switching to cover for Malabes who was displaced by the screen, he went straight for the basket.
Rico Maierhofer had a split second decision to make – stop Tiu or concede a possible drop pass to Nonoy Baclao who was lurking around the shaded lane. By the time the Green Archer decided to get in Tiu’s way, he was late and flailing away at the air as the ball kissed the window and into the net.
Jayvee Casio arrived at the Coliseum at 12:30. Instead of going straight to the locker room, he first went to the court which was still dark and quiet as the two schools’ supporters had not yet been let in. “Big game ‘to,” he said.
He then talked about his old teammate, Ford Arao, who was having his finest season, “Maraming nagugulat sa pinapakita niya ngayon. Teammates kami noon sa San Beda at nakita ko doon pa lang kung anong kaya niya. Kaya hindi ako nagugulat.”
At the 5:54 mark of the second quarter, Casio and three of his former high school teammates were on the playing court at the same time – Arao, Yuri Escueta, and Mike Baldos. The last time the four of them were on the court together was when they dusted off PJ Walsham’s Letran Squires for the NCAA Juniors crown.
In their second round meeting, it was Escueta who was the surprise package as he scored 16 big points in an Ateneo win 89-87.
This time it was Mike Baldos who picked up from where he left off during the knockout match with UST last Sunday. Baldos finished the DLSU match with 4 points, 4 rebounds, and 1 more confidence boosting performance.
“Hardwork lang,” smiled a sheepish Baldos. “Sana tuloy tuloy na ‘to.”
Four down; one to go. The last time the two teams played a five-game set was in 2002 and we all know how that ended.
After missing out on Season 69, the Green Archers were itching to vent their frustrations on their arch rival who took them to task for their foibles in the media and perhaps in the most damning matter… through humor.
Sometimes you have to be careful for what you wish for. In four meetings thus far, the average margin of victory has been 1.75 points. Every game has been heart stopping and heartbreaking and three of them have gone Ateneo's way.
Now La Salle wants to see the last of its rival this season. In one more game.
Before the start of the match in the Upper A section of the coliseum’s southside, a group in blue and white held up high a sign that drew much derision and catcalls from their opposites in green who were just an arm’s length away.
“We beat you twice and we’ll do it again.”
We’re about to find out. Here we go again and I'll see you on Sunday.