This appears in the Monday, September 15, 2014 edition of the Business Mirror.
A lesson about heart and character
A lesson about heart and character
by rick olivares
If you have watched the UAAP for as long as I have (since 1983 and counting), you will know that the one team that has time and again broken Atenean hearts is FEU.
When I first started watching, we battled the UE Warriors (sans the “Red”) closely even if they had Allan Caidic because burly Mike Facundo was the one man who could neutralize Jerry Codinera. But the Tamaraws? Man, they always blew us away. If Glenn Capacio and Romanito Roa didn’t zap you from the outside, Harmon Codinera and Jack Tanuan hammered you from the inside. They were plenty tough and plenty good.
When Ateneo began to find its championship groove in the mid-1980s, FEU (and UP) was the spoiler. Even when gunning for a three-peat in 1989, it was the Tams of Johnny Abarrientos and Vic Pablo that knocked out the Blue Eagles from contention.
At the onset of the current Ateneo basketball program, even with a Final Four twice-to-beat advantage in 1999 (and another semis clash in 2000), FEU just killed Ateneo.
And there were those teams by Arwind Santos, Gerard Jones, Denok Miranda, Mark Isip and Ateneans (from Davao) Jed Cutler and RJ Rizada who stopped any notion of a back-to-back in the early years of the new millennium.
By the mid-2000s, there were two teams capable of upending La Salle – Ateneo and FEU. Both teams had talent, depth, and the stars to carry them. But the one thing that those Blue Eagle teams carried with them was mental toughness.
To wit: During Season 73, FEU defeated Ateneo in the first and last game of the double round robin. Both squads dispatched their foes in the semis to arrange a Finals meeting. While FEU was confident they could deal with Ateneo, the Blue Eagles were non-plussed. Why? Because they were in their element of the Finals. I will never forget as long as I live what Ryan Buenafe said on the eve of Game One: “Makakatikim hetong mga taga-Morayata na ‘to.”
Once the ball was thrown up the air for the opening jump, it was a one-sided contest. For good measure, it was Buenafe’s trey that knocked FEU in Game Two for the three-peat.
Then there’s the second round meeting between Ateneo and FEU in Season 74. The Tamaraws looked imperious with Terence Romeo leading the charge. In fact, the Tams looked headed for a win when Kiefer Ravena caught fire. Along with Greg Slaughter, they came back to force overtime and once there, break FEU’s hearts in a 74-67 win.
In their second straight finals meeting, tiny Emman Monfort put the clamps on league MVP RR Garcia and that was all she wrote.
The five-peat is over. It’s a different team now although there are remnants from the previous title-winning squads who carry with them the same fire and spirit – Kiefer Ravena, Von Pessumal, and Nico Elorde.
In the few games I have seen this season, I thought that team struggled for consistency. I wondered about their shot selection, the rotation, or even what system they were running. The other few holdovers outside Ravena, Pessumal, and Elorde hardly even got any playing time during the five-peat. However, that is to be expected with all the new players not to mention coaches on the team.
But that is good because they got a crash course in a winning attitude by playing alongside those three veterans and other additions to the coaching staff (of course, I am not discounting the veteran coaches from the Norman Black years) like Ronnie Magsanoc who not only led UP to a UAAP championship but also recently coached San Beda to a NCAA title.
When there are people who know how to win on your team, you will win.
Now, this game for the number one seed looked like it was going to be a loss. Unlike Ateneo, I thought that FEU was better equipped to play La Salle and NU because they had the height and the bench.
Strangely enough, I always thought that whenever the Tams (they have a lot of remnants from those teams that lost in Season 73-75) played Ateneo, they got nervous. Looking at their faces for this match, I wondered if they knew they could win this. There was always that shadow of a doubt.
Case in point: last season, FEU still had RR Garcia and Terrence Romeo but they could only eke out a four-point win in overtime in the first round. Then in the second round, with Kiefer Ravena clearly hurting, Ateneo crushed FEU, 92-73, with Juami Tiongson leading the way! Imagine that.
For this game, Ateneo was down by 19. The Blue Eagles' decisions on the court were rather wanting. The shots were not falling with Lady Luck not even giving the team a lucky bounce. The crowd was out of it. The faces looked downright glum as the prospect of playing a La Salle team that has started to pick it up or an NU team that has won four straight against the blue and white looking like a terrible reality.
Ateneo looked like they would finally turn things around when they scored four straight points highlighted by a steal and a finish by Von Pessumal. But FEU answered and hiked the lead back to 19.
Just when it all seemed over, Ateneo, as it has done on several occasions, dipped into its blue hat and not only pulled out a rabbit but also found a deep reservoir of resolve.
As the lead shrunk to 10, FEU called for time. They misfired on two more possessions and now they looked really nervous. Even when Ateneo had a chance to ice the game, GBoy Babilonia muffed a layup off a beautiful dime drop by Chris Newsome and Kiefer Ravena had the ball stripped from him.
Ah, Babilonia. He is one of three reclamation projects for this Ateneo team with the other two being Nico Elorde and Fonzo Gotladera who were discarded from La Salle. If their chipping in the end game rally means anything it is Ateneo will need all hands on deck if they want to pull the rug from under La Salle and everyone else. The three of them make the doubting Thomases scratch their heads and go, “Damn!” They might not be the most skilled on the floor but they lend credence to what Michael Jordan said so many years ago about guys with heart beating guys with talent.
Back to the game, given a couple of stops, FEU could not add to their lead. And before they knew it, it was Ateneo that had a chance to win it at the buzzer.
And they accomplished the comeback by playing great defense with some help from FEU wilting from the line and in their execution.
In any extension period, the most crucial part if the first two minutes when a team establishes its game. The team that scores first is usually put in a good position while the other plays catch up. That early seven point-lead was huge and provided some buffer against FEU that could not even notch the count even.
As they misfired and bricked at the free throw line, you could see that old doubt creep back in.
The Blue Eagle teams of the last decade entered a match thinking, “We can win this!” Emphasis on the exclamation point.
It was obvious that Chris Newsome was winded and close to cramping. That runner that was so off? While Mac Belo forced him into an awkward shot, the shot was short as I thought that New expended a lot of effort on the jump but had not left to send the ball towards the basket. In the next play, he was favoring his leg YET HE DID NOT COME OFF THE FLOOR. NOT WITH THIS MOST IMPORTANT GAME OF THE SEASON. If there is one team that could really use that twice-to-beat advantage, it is Ateneo. It is something they could use to stave off those other squads that are not only taller, deeper, and more talented.
With these FEU Tamaraws, it’s “Can we win this?” Emphasis on the question mark.
When Mike Tolomia was put on the line, he missed three of four free throws. He turned over the ball during a hand-off and was lucky he wasn’t called for an offensive foul when Kiefer Ravena was guarding him. The Achi Iñigo botched a pass that was reminiscent of Clark Bautista’s pass to Jeric Fortuna in Game Two of the Season 75 Finals. Iñigo doesn’t make too many mistakes but this was in the crunch and this one will haunt him.
When FEU’s coaching staff will review this game, they will look at those last four excruciating minutes when the game turned on them. They will search for answers while ask some questions of their own.
I have watched the UAAP for a very long time but I have never thought that I have seen it all. Why?
The game will never get points for style or even form. However, it is a textbook entry on playing for the entire 40 minutes while serving a lesson about heart and character that has been the domain of the Ateneo Blue Eagles for the past 12 years.