Ateneo 61 vs. Adamson 52
by rick olivares
In essence they still are. However, they had the daunting task of winning in a do-or-die situation against the Ateneo Blue Eagles that needed the win to clinch the twice-to-beat advantage.
Prior to the tussle, Adamson’s second year forward Alex Nuyles watched the UST Growling Tigers make mincemeat of the NU Bulldogs from the corridor that lead to his squad’s dugout. They lost several heartbreakers this season and as the days went by the chances of availing of the last slot to the Final Four grew dimmer. But at least they were always in the fight unlike the Bulldogs who were on the receiving end of double-digit maulings.
“Sana meron chance kami,” he said softly.
Across that corridor was Ateneo guard Eric Salamat who had yet to get dressed for his team’s upcoming match. He was engrossed in the mismatch between the Tigers and the Bulldogs. A fever prevented him from performing from full capacity in Ateneo’s 75-54 win over NU. A game where he scored zero points. Team rules dictate that if any player is under the weather, he should immediately inform Coach Norman Black so he could receive immediate treatment. Salamat kept it to himself because he wanted to help the team inch closer to the top seed. “Sana makabawi,” he said with quiet confidence.
But early on, it didn’t happen for Ateneo’s fourth year guard who had to be sat down at the 2:31 mark of the first quarter along with Nonoy Baclao and Kirk Long. The Blue Eagles were behind at 8-6 with all their points coming from Rabeh Al-Hussaini.
After an Adamson timeout, Austria, who had taken off Allan Santos from his line-up, inserted seldom-used center Arnold Basilio to make life difficult for Al-Hussaini. Basilio, like his other teammates, was tall, lanky, athletic, and could stroke it from outside. The Falcons began throwing double and triple teams on the Ateneo center hoping he’d turn them over (he did).
On the offensive, end, they ran two staggered screens from the high post where their shooters would weave through to lose their man. This forced Ateneo to switch a lot and the quick ball movement forced Ateneo’s big men to run out to the perimeter. While Jerick Cañada versus Al-Hussaini down the blocks might sound like a mismatch in favor of the Ateneo slotman, out in the perimeter it was the reverse. The Falcons guard buried several huge shots.
That also led to Ateneo being clobbered on the offensive boards 23-9. They swiped at the ball, bumped the Blue Eagle guards to get them out of their rhythm, and pretty much did what UST showed us in their second round match with Ateneo.
Basilio’s 18-footer at the 8:52 mark gave Adamson its biggest lead at 21-10. Although the Blue Eagles would close the gap to one at 29-28 after a quarter and 30-28 at the half, it sent a chill up the spine of many of the Ateneo faithful.
Ateneo cares none for the win streak it has going against Adamson (since September 18, 1997). The mission for the season can be broken down into several components: make the final four, get the twice to beat advantage, shoot for the top seed then defend the championship. That can be broken down further – win the games its needs to against the lower seeds and manage the top tier squads.
If anyone has been playing close attention to the Blue Eagles since Norman Black took over, the game plan is simple – pound it inside and get to the foul line.
Sounds easy on paper. But Ateneo knew they were up against a sound and disciplined team with a very good coach. Give the Blue Eagles props too after all they are a sound and disciplined team with their own very good coach (isn’t that an understatement).
When they took to the court for the second half, the call to arms was resounded and a better defensive effort ensued.
A Nonoy Baclao jumper and two free throws by Al-Hussaini gave Ateneo the lead 32-30 but Adamson responded with points of their own in a nip and tuck battle. “Kaya natin ‘to,” exhorted Falcons guard Leo Canuday to his teammates after Eric Camson buried a two to make it 51-47 in favor of Adamson.
Unlike the previous season where Eric Salamat fueled Ateneo’s fastbreak with his thieving and dealing, this year although his numbers are a somewhat down, he has been quietly effective while other two guards like UE’s Paul Lee or FEU’s Ryan Roose Garcia have taken the spotlight. While some surmise that he is better of as a sixth man, there is no denying that he is every bit capable as other guards in the league.
Salamat nailed a jumper from the 15-foot line after ditching Cañada to tie the match at 51-all. He followed that with a steal off Nuyles then grabbed an offense rebound and added a free throw to make it 52-51.
It was just the games turning point.
Hammered at the boards and their passing lanes closed by the Falcons, it was the Blue Eagles turn and Salamat presided over the charge.
Nonoy Baclao gamely playing on with a hand injury pulled down an offensive board and added a free throw. Salamat fished a foul from Eric Camson that sent the Falcons into penalty. The fourth year guard split his charities but the three-point lead (54-51) with 1:37 to go was at best a luxury given the way both teams shot given the spirited defensive effort of both teams.
Al-Hussaini added on more free throw (Ateneo missed four at this crucial stage) to make it 55-51.
Then Kirk Long, pretty much silent this match, stole Cañada’s cross-court pass to Canuday and fed Salamat for a lay-up. That was the backbreaker as they finished off the Falcons 61-52.
All season long, even as basketball analysts seeded Ateneo to defend the crown, Black insisted that they take things one game at a day. The Falcons have always played the Blue Eagles strong and it was anything but a bump in the road. It was an uphill climb just to grab that twice-to-beat advantage.
While Salamat seemed winded from the pace and struggle, he was just grateful to be able to help in the overall effort. As he refused a Chocnut bar from Al-Hussaini (that was given by one of the sports scribes), he answered a question about his bouncing back from an invisible outing against NU with a smile.
At the opposite side of the San Juan Arena at the Adamson dugout, there was a pained look on many of the Falcons’ faces. Nuyles washed up and dressed quickly. He managed a weak smile and before ducking out the backdoor said, “Next year na lang ulit.”
Ateneo 61 – Al-Hussaini 19, Salamat 17, Salva 9, Buenafe 7, Baclao 5, Reyes 2, Long 2, Monfort 0, Golla 0, Chua 0, Austria 0
Adamson 52 – Cañada 10, Nuyles 7, Canuday 7, Colina 6, Cabrera 6, Margallo 4, Camson 4, Basilio 4, Alvarez 4, Lozada 0, Galinato 0