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In Your Face!

Let's talk balls.

  1. In, Out, Drum Roll Please (Part 1)

    In the UAAP it sometimes comes down to whatever the powers-that-be say when it comes to who gets to play and who does not.

    With Season 81 set to open this weekend, quite a few players have been talked about, as to whether or not they will play and how those scenarios all work out.

    Most of the players being discussed in various online discussion boards and social media seem to be the big men.

    Let us start with the biggest one, Ateneo's newly minted superstar center, 6-11 Angelo Kouame.

    Kouame is from the Ivory Coast, and came to the Ateneo about a year and a half ago, first just hanging around behind the Ateneo bench during UAAP games, and later on becoming part of their Fr Martin Cup team.

    In the Fr Martin, Kouame was a huge presence inside, collaring rebounds and blocking shots and also getting the odd put-back. No one really knew he would become as good as he has become now.

    The question with him is whether or not he has actually met the local residency requirement for UAAP foreign athletes.

    This is important because Kouame has not yet enrolled in the Ateneo, having finished high school in some small boutique school. Let us be clear that this is not about whether or not Kouame is a legitimate student, or whether or not he finished high school in a legitimate institution. The question is simply whether or not, having spent only one full academic year at said boutique school, Kouame has already fulfilled the residency requirement of the UAAP and thus allowing him to play already in Season 81.

    There are two schools of thought here:

    1) Kouame is not yet eligible because the student must serve his residency in the school for which he will see varsity action in the UAAP. That is after all the whole point of residency, i.e. you reside with the school. Remember, although Kouame was lined up by the Ateneo on its Fr Martin team, he was not yet enrolled in the school at the time. Fr Martin Cup organizers may or may not have been aware of this, and even if they were, the Fr Martin isn't really as strict as the UAAP when it comes to eligibility. If this holds, then Kouame must sit out one year now that he is enrolled in the Ateneo, making him eligible to play only come Season 82.

    2) Kouame is eligible because residency means only actually being in the country. Kouame has been in the country for at least a year and a half. Heck he even finished high school here. If this holds then he can play right away and we will see more of him throughout Season 81.

    For the reigning champion Blue Eagles, this is a very important issue that must be decided quickly. In all honesty, their prospects of a successful title defense depend about 90% on Kouame being able to play.

    Next up is Taane Samuel, the 6-8 Filipino-New Zealander with Lasalle.

    Samuel's case is a little trickier, legally speaking.

    He was apparently born and raised in New Zealand but his mother is a full-blooded Filipina who migrated there, making her a natural born Filipino citizen, at least when she was born.

    Lasalle would love to have him play as a local, thereby allowing the Green Archers to line up an import, perhaps that Socka fellow who saw action in a few off-season tournaments.

    If Samuel were applying to play as a Filipino-foreigner in the PBA, all he would have to do is present documentation that his mother is a natural-born Filipina who migrated to New Zealand and that would be the end of it.

    Things are not quite that simple in the UAAP, and not always because of what the UAAP rules say or do not say. A lot of times, all it takes is one member-school's representative to raise a shitstorm over a player and suddenly things get messy.

    Samuel also apparently played on one of the FIBA Youth Teams of New Zealand, which was another thing counted against him. How indeed could a Filipino possibly play for another country's national youth team?

    Samuel however can play right away, as an import or as a local, since he has completed the residency requirements of the UAAP, being enrolled in Lasalle the last couple of academic years.

    Samuel will add a lot of quality size and skill to an already imposing Lasalle frontline no matter how he is considered.

    (To be continued)
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  2. How Hard Could It Be

    With the UAAP about to start its 81st season this weekend, Mr Libog's thoughts naturally turned to thoughts of championship.

    "How hard could it be?" He repeated that question probably at least a dozen times over lunch at this new Vietnamese restaurant near where we live.

    (Note to friends: you should all give it a try, its called Ba Noi, inside Kapitolyo, in Pasig, their Pho is truly inspired, and huge, good for two if you have normal appetites.)

    Going back to our conversation, Mr Libog was off on another one of his discussions on basketball common sense.

    "Pare naman, hindi naman imposibleng talunin ng Ateneo ang Lasalle last year. Apat na vetreran starters ang nawala sa Lasalle, apat 'yon ha!," he emphasized.

    "Tapos ang pinalit mo, isang mad bomber na converted point guard, na-dengue pa along the way. 'Yung isa magaling na sana, kaya lang siempre may pagka-bwakaw, tsaka magulo maglaro. Take note, pareho pa silang sophomores, second year lang sa college parehas," he continued.

    I reminded him that they still had arguably the best player ever to set foot on a UAAP court in maybe the last 20 years, the incomparable Benoit Mbala. Plus they also had a veteran transferee in 6-5 slam dunk champion Leonard Santillan, and veteran 6-5 Fil-American Abu Tratter. Heck, they even had Kib Montalbo, Andrei Caracut, Jollo Go, and 6-8 Justin (I am not spelling that with an "e" at the end because that is the feminine spelling and I don't care what it says on his birth certificate) Baltazar.

    "Sino ba point guard dun? Sino may hawak nung bola parati? Nakakarating ba kay Mbala?" he rattled off.

    "Tsaka, pare naman, may nakita ka bang galaw o pukol ni Mbala? Naalala mo ba si Orlando Johnson o kaya si Justin Brownlee sa laro ni Mbala? Hindi 'di ba? Sabi ko naman sa iyo wala naman talaga siyang pukol, matigas ang kamay, kita mo naman sa freethrows niya. Hindi din naman siya tipong kamador na may pullup or may tres gaya nina Johnson at Brownlee," he continued.

    Still, said I, Mbala is a heck of a player, and since this is only college ball, that makes him a titan on the court, plus as much as Mr Libog may have ripped into Mbala's teammates, no one would ever dispute there are probably more PBA players on Lasalle last year than the Ateneo did.

    I further reminded him that he himself made a pre-Season 80 prediction that Lasalle would repeat as champions, due largely, I reminded him further still, to, in his words, "Mbala wala talagang katapat."

    It was in fact the first time he said, "How hard could it be?" And indeed how hard could it be to win when you have a 6-6 titan on your side.

    "You remember I keep telling you how in the US NCAA it is normally the teams that do not have an NBA lottery prospect that wins the national championship?" he said.

    "I'm talking about teams like Villanova, UConn, etc. In the last 10 years, only the Kentucky team of Anthony Davis had a 1-done lottery prospect and won the national title, all the rest are mostly veteran teams," he explained.

    "Ganyan din actually sa UAAP, hindi naman just sheer talent. Look at Mbala's title team. Meron siyang Jeron Teng, Jason Perkins, Thomas Torres, Julian Sargent. Last year Mbala has two ball-dominant sophomores who barely played in their freshman year, a transferee playing for the first time in the UAAP, and a so-so talent whose best asset is he's a 6-5 Fil-Am."

    And he played against what, a bunch of all stars?

    "No, but Ateneo had veterans by then, battle-tested na. Thirdy Ravena, the Nieto twins, Anton Asistio, George Go, Vince Tolentino, even Ikeh, how many years have they been playing together? Graduate na nga sina Vince at Ikeh eh, Thirdy sat out a whole year pa, so that was how old that team was."

    "Same with Lasalle last year as well, nawalan sila ng apat na fifth-year starters. When they had all of those guys, especially Jeron, how hard could it be?"

    (I told you guys he said that a lot over lunch...)

    "So this year, fearless forecast ko, basta palaruin si (Angelo) Kouame, taya ko bahay namin pati lahat ng kotse ko, champion ang Ateneo," he declared.

    What if Kouame is ruled ineligible to play?

    "Sure Final 4 pa din, with a few breaks, or maybe some freethrow help from the referees, Finals pa din ang Ateneo. How hard could it be?"

    Everybody else?

    "UST and UE will dispute the cellar. All the rest rambulan na lang, although lamang na for Final 4 berths siguro FEU tsaka Adamson."

    There you have it folks.

    How hard could it be...
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  3. Former choir member Tiffany Teo determined to fulfill destiny as martial arts champ

    From our friends at ONE Championship...

    If a teenaged Tiffany "No Chill" Teo could see her adult counterpart, she would be unrecognizable.

    As a young girl, the Singaporean martial arts standout was heavily involved in choir activities, which she participated in for a decade.

    "I was a nerd when I was a kid. I was not very active," Teo shared in jest.

    Today, Teo is the polar opposite as she traded in her songbooks and rehearsal rooms for a pair of four-ounce gloves and the gym.

    Teo went from a quiet, unassuming choirgirl to becoming a renowned strawweight martial arts prospect with an impressive record of 7-0.

    The winding road to ONE Championship began in the oddest of places - in front of the television screen. Teo?s interest in martial arts, Muay Thai specifically, was stoked by popular reality show The Contender Asia.

    Motivated by the aforementioned television program and a brief stint in Taekwondo, Teo made her way to a Singapore gym to start training in the "art of eight limbs" nearly eight years ago.

    What started out as a way to stay in shape quickly turned into requests for Teo to test out her skills against real competition.

    "I had no plans to compete," she revealed. "My coaches kept asking. They wanted me to go to Thailand. I thought it was a crazy idea. 'You want me to go face a girl that has been doing it all her life?'"

    Teo turned down the opportunity test herself in Thailand, and, after training for two years, she put Muay Thai on the shelf completely as she packed her bags and headed to the United States to study Psychology at the University of Buffalo, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

    However, school was far from enough to keep Teo from wondering "what if" in terms of martial arts competition. As each day passed, the fire in her to compete grew stronger.

    With a full life prior to heading to the United States, there was simply no time for her to train, but after concluding her studies, the window opened again.

    Teo returned to Singapore and dove head-first into the amateur martial arts scene after just a month of training.

    What was meant to be a one-time experience that she could cross off her bucket list soon turned into something more serious, all because she lost.

    "I hate losing," Teo bared. "I decided to re-evaluate what I did wrong, and I wanted to continue."

    A far cry from her days in the choir, Teo's journey to perfect her craft in martial arts progressed quickly.

    After immersing herself with Muay Thai and boxing, Teo dabbled in the famous grappling discipline of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

    Before she knew it, the Singaporean was on the road to a full-fledged professional mixed martial arts career.

    "I fell in love with martial arts. There is more to it than throwing strikes and grappling with your training partner on the mat. It empowers me every single day," Teo stressed.

    From the amateur to the professional ranks, there was one battle that Teo fought for every single match that she was booked for: winning the approval of her parents.

    "They did not like the fact that I am competing," she said. "Since day one, they asked me why I wanted to do it. 'You cannot be a normal person with a nine-to-five job?' They have let it go, but I know they do not like it. They wanted me to settle down and live a normal life."

    After having her hand raised in seven professional bouts inside the cage, Teo has received the biggest opportunity of her perfect martial arts career as she is scheduled to clash with "The Panda" Xiong Jing Nan for the inaugural ONE Women's Strawweight World Championship.

    Both women are set to collide in the main event of ONE: KINGS OF COURAGE, which takes place at the Jakarta Convention Center in Indonesia on 20 January.

    The 28-year-old Singaporean title contender can make history on that fateful night, but she knows that it will not be easy.

    "It takes a lot of discipline and hard work to be a world champion. We see how people change after they become the champion, so I feel like you need to stay humble, grounded, and continue to work hard," she stated.

    Although Xiong is widely-regarded as one of China?s finest woman warriors, Teo is confident in her ability to win as she is preparing for all possible scenarios for her first-ever martial arts world title contest.

    "I feel a knockout or submission is possible. She is pretty wild with her punches so the opening for a knockout is there, and an opening for a takedown is there if she is committing to her punches," she explained.

    "At the same time, she is tough. She might not get knocked down or knocked out, and she ...
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  4. Model-turned-martial artist Rome Trinidad looks to exemplify Filipina warrior spirit

    File this under "Wala Lang, Walang Kinalaman Sa Basketball" ...

    If Rome "The Rebel" Trinidad were in a room full of people, she would incontestably stand out because she is the epitome of a true Asian beauty.

    Trinidad is a certified eye candy that can grace on the cover of a top fashion magazine, sashay down the catwalk with the latest apparel, or endorse high-end beauty products in a television advertisement.

    However, Trinidad is more than a pretty face because deep within, she is an authentic martial artist.

    Trinidad is a practitioner of Sikaran, an ancient martial arts discipline with no written history that originated from Rizal province in the Philippines and was passed on from generation to generation by succession.

    "I started martial arts at a young age," she revealed. "It was a challenge to me, especially in a discipline that was practiced by men. I felt so empowered as I progressed in Sikaran."

    Unfortunately, Sikaran was not enough to satisfy her growing hunger to learn. Simply put, she wanted something more.

    Trinidad went on to hone her skills as a martial artist by incorporating different combat disciplines and eventually transitioning to the multi-faceted arena of mixed martial arts.

    Known by the moniker "Rebel" due to her mental toughness and tenacious approach, Trinidad is set to make her promotional debut under the ONE Championship banner as she dukes it out with rising Thai superstar Rika ?Tinydoll? Ishige on the undercard of ONE: WARRIORS OF THE WORLD in Bangkok, Thailand on 9 December.

    "It is my honor to be a part of one of the biggest mixed martial arts promotions in the world like ONE Championship. Not everybody gets this chance. I will do my best for my family and also for my countrymen," Trinidad said.

    By strapping on four-ounce gloves, Trinidad sees it as an honor and privilege to represent Philippines in ONE Championship, which is widely considered as the sport's premier organization in the Asian region.

    "My bout against a well-revered Thai martial artist like Rika Ishige is a must-win fight for me. My family is going to watch. Not only that, the whole country will be watching as my bout will be broadcasted live worldwide. Surely, I will give everything in this match to bring home the victory," she stated.

    Trinidad does not expect any problem continuing her venture into the constantly-growing landscape of martial arts as she believes that she is fully equipped with the task at hand.

    "Martial arts is my passion. I'm really happy when I share and learn new things about martial arts with others. I'm surrounded by people who support me in training. It makes me stronger. I am ready for this upcoming fight in Bangkok," she guaranteed.

    Training with Singaporean martial arts veteran Nicholas "JJ" Lee to bolster her arsenal, the 20-year-old Filipino atomweight believes that her self-confidence will be the key to success as she shares the ONE Championship cage with Ishige.

    "I know she is a good fighter with a good background in martial arts. Plus, she is more experienced than me. But one important key to success is self-confidence. The trait has always been with me in this journey. I look at things optimistically," Trinidad conveyed.

    Although her sights are set on pulling off a successful debut in ONE Championship, Trinidad is likewise standing up for women?s empowerment by breaking down gender barriers.

    Trinidad stressed that her maiden ONE Championship cage appearance should also serve as a springboard for women to understand they can truly do anything if they put their minds and hearts into it.

    "Martial arts is not only for men. If you look at me, I am the living proof that women can do it," she mentioned. "Whether you are a child, old, short, or tall, everyone is welcome in the martial arts community."

    "Most people do not understand mixed martial arts. They think it has no rules, and barbaric," Ishige explained further. "I want to show them it is not like that. It is a real sport, and me, I am a small girl, but I can fight in a world class organization. It is not brutal. It is about technique."

    Trinidad is excited to work with the likes of ONE Women?s Atomweight World Champion Angela "Unstoppable" Lee, Mei "V.V" Yamaguchi, Istela Nunes, Gina Iniong, Jenny Huang and Ishige in growing the women's martial arts scene in Asia

    "Recently, female fighters in Asia have been given several avenues to showcase their skills and what they are capable of in a world-class organization such as ONE Championship. Angela Lee and others paved the way for other female fighters like me. I am here to continue what they've started," she stressed.

    Even if gender parity continues ...
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  5. Reclamation, Upset

    "It was over, we are champions, that is all I could think of," said an ecstatic Chibueze Ikeh, the 6-8 center, in the aftermath of the Ateneo De Manila's thriller of a title clincher against arch rival De La Salle 88-86. This is Ikeh's final playing year. He is graduating in a few months.

    After three of the most grueling and emotionally-wrenching games in UAAP Finals history, the Blue Eagles reclaimed a championship they once owned for five straight seasons.

    "I just lay on the floor of the Araneta (Coliseum)," said point guard Matt Nieto after that last heave from La Salle went in. "I knew it was all over and we were champions," he added happily.

    Indeed, this had to be the toughest, and to use that millennial term, epic title series in maybe the last 15 years.

    Last year, the Green Archers were the veteran-laden team bringing in Benoit Mbala, arguably the best player ever to see action in the country's most popular varsity league. Somehow the Blue Eagles managed to get into the Season 79 Finals to square off against La Salle, and expectedly, the Ateneo bowed in a two-game sweep.

    Fast forward to winner-take-all Sunday just a year later, and suddenly the Ateneo looked nothing like the easy pickings they were just a year prior. "We learned there is no substitute for working the hardest you can," remarked Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin, the American-New Zealand mentor who preached "playing the right way" right from the get-go.

    Game 1 had its fair share of controversy, as videos from that game continue to make the rounds in social media showing at least four instances where La Salle players were taking cheap shots at their Ateneo counterparts, including at least three instances of closed fist strikes from the La Salle side that should have merited at least a one-game suspension on the errant players. The Ateneo still pulled off the 76-70 victory in this game, with center George Go completing the and-1 clincher.

    Game 2 saw the Blue Eagles go up by as much as 21 points, only to have the Green Archers turn that around and build up as much as a 13-point lead themselves, as they knotted the series at one game apiece with the 92-83 victory.

    Game 3, well, was a classic.

    The Ateneo was up 10 early on, but La Salle stormed right back in the third period, taking a 59-62 lead on a one-hander by forward Abu Tratter.

    But the Ateneo kept its composure and got an 80-70 spread midway through the payoff fourth period.

    La Salle would come to within 82-80 on a three-pointer, with over a minute left.

    Go however would reprise his hero's role, taking the perfect kick-out pass from a driving Thirdy Ravena to nail a clutch three-pointer from his favorite quarter-court spot to give the Ateneo the 85-80 breathing space it needed.

    "The whole team is clutch. I would not have made that shot if it wasn't for the coaches who design our plays, my teammates who were all in their proper spots," said the 6-7 Go, an Applied Chemistry Major now in his senior year in college.

    Nieto and Anton Asistio would nail the insurance free throws to negate the buzzer beating three-pointer from La Salle for the final count.

    This is the Ateneo's ninth senior division basketball diadem, and without a doubt the one they had to work for the hardest.

    Their 1987 and 1988 back-to-back titles, where Nieto's father Jet played, was a tall, tough, talented team.

    Enrico Villanueva, LA Tenorio, Larry Fonacier, Rich Alvarez, and Wesley Gonzales all went on to have very good pro careers, with a couple of them even seeing National Team duty, after they won the 2002 championship.

    Forget the 2008 to 2012 5-Peat dynasty under Norman Black. Those teams were so ridiculously loaded it would have been a crime for them to lose. Yes, even the 2010 team in between the Rabeh Al Hussaini-Nonoy Baclao and Greg Slaughter years.

    This championship was probably the only one among the nine when the Ateneo was the clear underdog in terms of sheer talent.

    I mean, come on, Benoit Mbala was playing for La Salle, and he had swingman Ricci Rivero, point guard sniper Aljun Melecio, 6-5 slam dunk champion power forward Leonard Santillan, and Tratter.

    "Sa totoo lang kung kunwari jak en poy tayo, tapos pipili ka ng players mo, sino ba mas pipiliin mo? Hindi ba talaga namang mas may talent and players ng La Salle lalo na si Mbala," queried Mr Libog over lunch before Game 3.

    "We need to get hot from three-point range, and hope for some foul trouble on Mbala at least, para may laban tayo," he added.

    Mr Libog got his wish.

    Baldwin did a heck of a job accentuating the strengths of the Blue Eagles while doing his best to minimize their negatives, not the least ...
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