Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ateneo Blue Eagles: The Climb Back to the Top

The Climb Back to the Top
The 2008 UAAP Champions Ateneo Blue Eagles
(adapted from the forthcoming book, The 18th Banner; this also appears in the recent Ateneo publication On Campus)
by rick olivares

The Green Archers had bragging rights for exactly 279 days. That’s 279 days the Blue Eagles had to stew things as they prepared themselves for the mother of all redemptions.

Amongst the Ateneo Blue Eagles and team officials, they liked their chances heading into Season 71. Only there were a lot of ifs.

They needed another double-digit scorer to replace the 14.2 points they lost when Ford Arao graduated. Skipper Chris Tiu was actually the only other player to hit more than 10 points in a match with 12.4. Over the last few years, Tiu has proved to be not only a steady point-maker but also a clutch player. Opposing defenses would no doubt be geared to stopping Ateneo’s main man.

The coaching staff looked to Jai Reyes, Kirk Long, Eric Salamat, and even rookie Ryan Buenafe to provide some offense, but the one person they were hoping to pick up the slack was Rabeh Al-Hussaini.

The team is meticulously composed. Players aren’t recruited simply because they are highly-touted. The team looks for intelligent yet talented players who will fit Black’s system of fastbreaking offense yet are tenacious on defense.

Al-Hussaini was to play caddy to Japeth Aguilar who started at center when Paolo Bugia graduated. But a confluence of events led to the former Mapua Red Robin moving to the United States to play for the US Division I school Western Kentucky after his sophomore season. And Al-Hussaini found himself the default man in the middle for Ateneo.

“People don’t understand,” recalled Coach Black. “We lost Japeth Aguilar not just for that season, but for the next few years.” It set back our plans of bringing up players through the system. The upside though is it forced others to pick up the slack.”

But his time had come. In the 2007 CCL Championship against the UV Green Lancers, Al-Hussaini repeatedly took it to the Cebuanos’ big men and outscored their entire starting frontline (including the 6’11” Gregory Slaughter, Rino Berame, Ariel MepaƱa, and Sylvester Tangcongco). And for his efforts, he made the mythical selection. In the title-clinching match against UE in the Nike Summer League, Al-Hussaini led all scorers with 18 points.

Now against the rest of the league, Rabeh was the number one scoring option inside. And against La Salle in both squads’ first match of the UAAP season, Rabeh would get to prove it.

Even when La Salle raced to a luxurious six-point lead at 67-61 early in the fourth in both squad’s first game of the year, the Ateneans had this quiet confidence that they had one more run left in them.

As the green gallery revved up their “Animo La Salle" cheers, Eric Salamat thought to himself, “I’ve had enough of this.” With Jobe Nkemakolam reminding the Green Archers that he’s an inside force to contend with and Al-Hussaini standing toe-to-toe with La Salle’s frontline, Salamat’s drive gave the lead to Ateneo for good 69-67. As he backpedaled on defense, Salamat tapped his chest. “All heart, baby,” he cried. “All heart.”

In the gut check time of the last two minutes, the Blue Eagles made 8-11 free throws to ice their first victory of Season 71 at 79-73.

Whereas in the past two seasons, the team would win games by the skin of their teeth, in Season 71, the Blue Eagles would pound foes into submission as the juggernaut got going.

The one exception was that heart-stopping second round win that had all the ingredients of that patented Ateneo comeback.

Since 2006, Ateneo has been involved in 15 matches that was decided by three points or less and in the final seconds of play. The final score was a result of either a game-winning shot or a game-winning stop.

The Blue Eagles won 11 of them with Chris Tiu accounting for five (JC Intal had three of the wins while Doug Kramer two and Kirk Long one).

Tiu was involved in every one of those wins. It is a testament to his ability to stay in the game and for his end game heroics.

In the game’s final minutes, UE’s high-leaping forward-center Elmer Espiritu called for the ball and an isolation against Nonoy Baclao. It might have been a foolhardy act considering he was going up against the most intimidating defender in the league. But for jumping jacks like Espiritu, they live for the challenge and the opportunity to posterize a fearsome defender. In fact, a few months earlier, UE’s #9 scored a facial on Sam Ekwe in PBL action.

With 4:09 left in the fourth, Espiritu ditched Baclao with a nifty up-and-under move for a 48-41 UE lead.

On Ateneo’s trip to their court, Ryan Buenafe replied with a huge trey 48-44 still UE.

It was at that point that Espiritu waved off his teammates to take on Baclao one-on-one. This time, Ateneo’s Mr. Extra Possession for his ability to grab offensive rebounds stopped the Red Warrior.

As the Blue Eagles raced down, UE’s former Rookie of the Year and starting point guard Marcy Arellano momentarily forgot Chris Tiu’s whereabouts. Rabeh Al-Hussaini found him wide open from the right side of the arc for another three and the lead was down to one 48-47. 2:59 left in the game.

And after Hans Thiele banked in a 20-footer that restored a three-point lead for UE, Ateneo called a timeout.

With 35.4 seconds left, there was time for a quick two points and a defensive stand, but a tightly-guarded Chris Tiu bobbled the ball and he was forced to pass it to Al-Hussaini with the shot clock perilously winding down.

The Blue Eagle Captain, who during practice liked to engage his teammates in a game of horse and trick shots, got the ball back then dribbled towards the right side of the rainbow arc. After Tiu ditched Marcy Arellano with a pump fake, he then took a three with James Martinez lunging towards him.

The ball found he bottom of the net for a 50-all tie with 13.6 left in the match.

UE fumbled its throw-in in their next possession thanks to some great man-to-man defense by Kirk Long and Yuri Escueta. And although Ateneo missed a shot as they recovered the ball with 1.5 seconds left in regulation, it was clear that the tide had turned.

There was still some Black magic in the air.

In Ateneo’s first overtime game of the season, they once more came back from the grave when UE led 57-54 after Espiritu put back an Arellano miss.

Buenafe added a free throw while Al-Hussaini drained two of his own that tied the match at 57-all.

Poor execution off a pick and roll play by Arellano and Espiritu resulted in a fumble that Al-Hussaini recovered.

With 24 seconds left, Buenafe showed utmost moxie for a rookie as he beat former high school teammate Paul Lee with his deceptive first step then laid up the ball with an up-and-under move of his own over Thiele and Espiritu for a 59-57 lead that they would not surrender.

The 61-57 win spurred the team to sweep the second round and by the time they faced UE in the Final Four, Ateneo found itself with two opportunities to prove itself before it became UAAP champions for a fourth time.

UE and DLSU run very similar systems as they are both coached by the Pumaren brothers Dindo and Franz.

The Red Warriors were no match for the Blue Eagles as they ran their foes off the Araneta Coliseum floor with a 70-50 victory that was settled around halftime.

And for the second time in the Norman Black-era in Loyola Heights, Ateneo was in the UAAP Finals and against its most bitter rival, the De La Salle Green Archers.

Said Tiu, “I’m glad that we’re playing them (DLSU). It gives us more motivation.”

While Ateneo went into the Finals arguably huge favorites to annex their 18th title overall, the series was not without its drama and memorable moments.

In Game One, Ateneo had 14 turnovers in the first quarter alone. But what was even more telling was that the Green Archers never led at all. As bad as Ateneo was playing on the offensive end, their defense – their hallmark all year long – held up and DLSU was shooting blanks.

With the team stymied, it was up to Al-Hussaini to carry Ateneo on his broad shoulders in a game for the ages.

After a severe ankle injury the Friday before Game One, the 6’6” center who was a strong MVP candidate, showed up on the maple floor of the Araneta much to the dismay of the La Salle crowd. Al-Hussaini single-handedly carried Ateneo to victory on the strength of his 31 points and 9 rebounds.

By the time Nonoy Baclao erased Rico Maierhofer with a block that recalled a past totem when Larry Fonacier emphatically rejected archer Mark Cardona in 2002, it was to serve notice that the door was shut on their title retention aspirations.

And once more it was Ateneo’s time.

Having swept the season-ending awards, all that was left was to finish the job on the court before the highly-anticipated bonfire in Loyola.

There was some concern that the team might come out flat after the awards ceremony given the enormity of the situation. The Green Archers were obviously going to be all fired up.

“Don’t worry,” promised Baclao. “Focused kami.”

“Hindi na namin papatagalin pa,” added Al-Hussaini.

In Game Two, after two quick fouls were called on Al-Hussaini, the slotman told Tiu before he went to the bench, “It’s your turn.”

And for the graduating super-senior who took months to ponder on his return came through in the clutch as he’s always done in his great college career.

Tiu finished in double digits but as the Blue Eagles have done all season long – save in Game One – the finished the job as a team. All 10 Blue Eagles who checked into the match scored. When the inevitable La Salle run came in the third quarter, Ateneo held fast as it turned to its league-leading defense to stifle the Archers.

In the fourth finals match up between the two teams in the UAAP, the Ateneo Blue Eagles repaid one final debt after years of heartbreak when they beat the De La Salle Green Archers 62-51 for their fourth UAAP title and 18th overall (including the 14 in the NCAA).

It was Ateneo’s fourth championship victory in six meetings with La Salle as well.

The Blue Eagles showed everyone that they too can come back.

And the victory too isn’t just for the next 200-plus days but forever.

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