The Two Towers
Ateneo 71 vs University of Visayas 54
by rick olivares (photos by miggy. videos by rick. "rescue me" by the Alarm)
Champions League Match #15
November 28, 2007
The Arena, San Juan
“Tapos na. Bye bye na,” said Ford Arao who was battling conflicting emotions of joy and sadness. He was tired and at times running on pure adrenalin having come from PBL practice with San Mig Coffee straight into the finals of the 2007 Collegiate Champions League, but this game, this entire series was something he wouldn’t miss for the world.
Like many of his teammates, he came to the Ateneo College after having won a high school championship. In his first year with the team, the Blue Eagles made it to the finals but fell to Far Eastern University. He would battle through the difficulty of adjusting to a new school and an inability to adapt to the tougher collegiate circuit. Like Paolo Bugia before him, just when he was about to break out he suffered an injury that curtailed his development. Through it all, he grit his teeth and bore the burden. Oh, he heard the derisive jeers all right, but he displayed firm resolve to turn them into cheers.
In the just-concluded UAAP tournament, Arao defied the odds of a premature end to his playing days by leading the Blue Eagles from one crushing defeat to nearly stealing the spotlight of a finals berth. “Hindi pa tapos” became a mantra. It was a promise he made – to bring a title to Loyola – and a promise finally kept. “Sorry natagalan,” he apologized. “At least last game at may championship.”
Prior to the finals match, Ateneo may have been favored to win, but all the pre-game talk was centered on the University of Visayas’ oakwoods in Greg Slaughter, Ariel Mepaña, and Rino Berame.
By the game’s end, people were talking about center Rabeh Al-Husseini’s performance and how good Ateneo’s chances will be next season if he continues his strong post play. Al-Husseini so thoroughly outmuscled and outplayed the taller Slaughter that he reduced the tourney’s much-ballyhooed player into a spectator.
Heading into the team’s first major competition since the UAAP’s Season 70, Ateneo coach Norman Black emphasized two things: defense, and execution. “If we play good defense it will create scoring opportunities for us,” reminded the man who knows a thing or two about playing tough D. “For this game, we worked on our execution. We played these guys before and we respect them a lot so we had to make sure that we stayed true to our offense no matter what.
And for a few minutes, it seemed that the game would be all over for the UV Green Lancers right in the opening canto as the Blue Eagles took a page out of the Visayan team’s penchant for raining down destruction from the three-point arc. Following an Al-Husseini undergoal stab to start the game, back-to-back trifectas by skipper Chris Tiu and Kirk Long opened up the lane for Ateneo’s post players. The blue and whites raced to a 17-2 lead but when the second unit came in at the 3:06 mark, they were unable to hold the lead as their foes got back in the game.
The Green Lancers’ coaches – head gaffer Elmer “Boy” Cabahug (who made a name for himself with UV, Mama’s Love, and Swift back in his amateur days) and assistant Al Solis – were fearsome pistoleros back in their heyday. And their team bore an uncanny resemblance to they way they played the game. If you gave them a glimmer of daylight and they were shooting without hesitation and without remorse. Perhaps giddy that their big men had dropped the STI Olympians, the tournament’s other Cinderella team, they decided to once more muscle their way back into the scoring column. Except that meant attending a block party by that Human Eraser who sometimes goes by the name of Nonoy Baclao and Ateneo’s own giant in Al-Husseini. With Slaughter on the bench and guards Von Lanete and Ritchum Dennison misfiring, the Green Lancers were given some hope when back up guard Chris Diputado nailed a pair of treys, the second one from 79 feet away to get UV back in the game by the end of the first 10 minutes 21-12 in favor of Ateneo.
The Green Lancers continued their heady play into the second quarter to bring the lead down to three 21-18 (in favor of the Loyolans). But that was the closest they would ever get to Ateneo and the trophy.
Weathering UV’s barrage, Ateneo went into the half with some breathing space 32-26. “We have a ballgame, folks,” proclaimed BTV analyst Mark Zambrano, an Ateneo alumnus himself. “The third quarter will be interesting to see who will come out and seize control.”
Zambrano is a clever person; he knows that Ateneo normally fashions a sizeable lead in the third frame. But who could have guessed that it would only take one man to break the game wide open.
After emerging from the shadows of Japeth Aguilar in Season 69, Al-Husseini followed it up with a somewhat disappointing UAAP campaign. Two years ago, he was the beneficiary of many open look from the space carved out by JC Intal and Macky Escalona. This year he found it tougher and was on the bench for long stretches. However, in the Final Four versus La Salle, with Jobe Nkemakolam nursing a nagging injury, the younger brother of pro player Carlo Sharma played tough and began to send a message that he was a more focused player. Save for the round of eight match against Jose Rizal University where he scored only two points, Ateneo’s starting center put in double digits and good rebounding numbers every time out. And in the pivotal third quarter of the championship game, it hardly seemed fair as he almost single-handedly answered every UV shot with one of his own. And his hook shot over the taller Greg Slaughter at the 3:26 mark of the third canto sent the Ateneo crowd into frenzy and the UV big man to the bench for good. He scored 13 to the Green Lancers entire third quarter output of 14. Teammates Yuri Escueta and Baclao chipped in a few points to give Ateneo a 51-40 lead.
Right before the final quarter, Cabahug huddled his shell-shocked boys that they needed to string up a series of consecutive shots to get their confidence going. Take some good shots and they’ll have the Metro Manila team back on their heels. After all the pressure was on Ateneo’s since they had much to play for.
The Lancers turned to their big men for six straight points while Ateneo turned to Ford Arao. For a moment there, it seemed that his last game would be somewhat forgettable as his consecutive traveling violations in the late first quarter gave life to UV. Sizing up the situation and showing remarkable poise and big game maturity, Arao strung up seven points of his own to pad Ateneo’s lead to 16 at 66-40 with under six minutes left in the game.
Black’s boys sensing the kill, ratcheted up the defensive pressure. Eric Salamat and Yuri Escueta picked their UV counterparts’ pockets for four steals in the last few minutes that pretty much finished off their foes.
In the team’s last competitive game for 2007, the Blue Eagles won their first trophy of the Norman Black era. Tiu, Al-Husseini, and Ken Barracoso were named to the mythical selection while Baclao was awarded the tournament MVP. Black was named best coach and the team pocketed half a million worth of sporting equipment and money for scholarships.
“Any time you get a win it has got be good,” beamed team manager Paolo Trillo. “And these guys deserve it.”
With 1:27 left in the game, Black put in Arao one last time. “Naririnig ko yung heartbeat ko,” said the big man to himself. He took one last shot – a three-pointer that missed. But he was on target for a championship this time.
“Tapos na,” he said with satisfied finality as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “Pero Atenista tayo forever.”
Congratulations, Blue Eagles.
Thank you very much, Ford & the rest of the team.
Ateneo 71 – Al-Husseini 23, Tiu 11, Arao 9, Long 8, Baclao 7, Salamat 5, Escueta 4, Barracoso 4, Austria 0, Baldos 0
UV 54 – Lanete 13, Dennison 9, Luga 8, Diputado 8, Berame 6, Mepaña 6, Tangcongco 4, Slaughter 0, Villanil 0