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In Your Face!

Let's talk balls.

  1. 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 ...
  2. Ateneo-Lasalle Finals Looms (Season 80 Edition)

    And just like that the flagship UAAP Season 80 men's basketball senior division tournament is about to come to a close.

    After 112 elimination games spread over two rounds, it looks like the consensus Top 2 teams really are going to have rematch in the Finals.

    ABS CBN and the League itself could not have planned it much better.

    Reigning champion De La Salle is just waiting for arch rival Ateneo De Manila to dispose of stubborn Far Eastern as of this writing, and the two best teams of the tournament will have another blockbuster showdown to cap off the 80th season of the most popular collegiate caging tournament in the country.

    Ateneo could have been first into the Finals, except that La Salle beat them in the last game of the eliminations 79-76, preventing a regular season sweep by the Blue Eagles and the automatic Finals berth that went with it. It was a reversal of sorts, as the Ateneo had prevented La Salle from sweeping last season on the last game day as well.

    La Salle already booked their return trip to the Big Dance with a controversial 82-75 decision over third-seed Adamson University. The Green Archers came back from as much as 15 points down to pull the rug out from under the Soaring Falcons in their Final 4 match.

    This game however came with quite a lot of baggage, and has (as of this writing) become subject of an official protest from Adamson. The heart of the matter: La Salle was awarded 39 free throws while Adamson only got five. Yes sir, that is no typo, the free throw difference was 39-5 in favor of the Green Archers.

    The League responded to the Adamson protest by immediately suspending the three referees that worked this game, "with two strongly recommended for being banned for the rest of the season," in their response to Adamson. "If only to preserve public confidence in our league," the response further stated.

    Adamson head coach Franz Pumaren repeatedly said this was the "worst officiating" he had ever seen, and it seems the free throw statistics support him, Ironically, Pumaren was once head coach of La Salle and even led the team to a 4-Peat from 1998 to 2001.

    What other steps the league will take on this matter however remains to be seen. It is very rare that a re-play of a crucial playoff game is held, for whatever reason. In my rusty memory banks I think the last tiem a crucial game was re-played was between FEU and National University, during the heyday of the Terrence Romeo-Ray Parks shootouts, and the details now elude me. Perhaps someone can clarify the details (or even my memory of this) in the comments section.

    A similar controversy erupted sometime in 2014, during the Round 1 Ateneo-UE game, when the Ateneo got a 40-24 advantage in free throws - with league darling Kiefer Ravena getting 25 free throws just for himself - and the Blue Eagles going on to overhaul a big UE lead to win that game in overtime. Ravena had a career 38 points in that game.

    The Ateneo for its part succumbed to the Tamaraws last November 19th 80-67. FEU led by as many as 18 at one point, led by veteran Ron Dennison and former Blue Eagles, forward Arvin Tolentino and guard Hubert Cani.

    "We haven't done anything yet. We just took away their twice-to-beat advantage," said FEU head coach Olsen Racela, himself a former Blue Eagle and part of the 1988 Ateneo title team.

    Their knockout Final 4 game is set for tomorrow, November 22.

    This is another deja vu situation, as the Tamaraws and Blue Eagles also went the distance in last season's Final 4, with the Ateneo eventually making it to the Big Dance.

    FEU held the Ateneo to a little over 36% shooting from the field, including a nightmarish 3/17 from three-point range in the second half. "We just shot abysmally, and I can't even tell you how or why," said Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin after the game.

    FEU for its part shot nearly 50% from the field and even got the lucky ones, like a 28-foot buzzer beater by Cani in the third period.

    As the Season 80 Host School, Racela and the rest of the Tamaraws are hoping to make a different outcome in the KO match tomorrow.

    Still, no one is betting against a rematch between the Blues and Greens.

    Because seriously, can there be a bigger blockbuster in present day Philippine basketball than friggin' Ateneo-La Salle?

    Who will take the title?

    Smart money says the Green Archers get their back-to-back championship.
  3. Expectations III

    Expectations: NU is yet another team struggling with huge talent losses over the last couple of seasons. It doesn't help that sophomore forward Josh Sinclair got injured, and that prize recruit JV Gallego is still on their B Team for unspecified reasons.

    That leaves the main burden of carrying to team to veteran guard Rodolfo "JJ" Alejandro Jr, and he has done all he can to keep NU's boat afloat in Season 80. He's gotten some help from forward Matt Salem, the stretch 4 who transferred from La Salle, 6-8 import Issa Gaye and 6-7 center Matthew Aquino, son of PBA legend Marlou.

    But there just isn't enough talent across the board to make a contender of the Bulldogs, who are only three years removed from their last UAAP Championship, a title that was 60 years in the making. Alejandro and Gaye are among the league's MVP contenders, but they've gotten erratic support from the rest of their guys.

    "It is all about consistency, and right now we have a lot of work to do on that," said head coach Jamike Jarin in one interview after their Round 1 loss to league-leading Ateneo. Jarin is trying to play his usual frenetic style with the Bulldogs, but it seems this isn't quite working out at the Senior Division as well as it did in the Junior Division, a knock on him that carried over from his two seasons over in the NCAA as the head coach of the San Beda Red Lions.

    NU needs to try and put some kind of win streak together, but that may be easier said than done considering everything going against them, from their relative youth to their lack of overall talent.

    Surprise: Enzo Joson has emerged as a pleasant enough surprise for Jarin and NU, as the former Ateneo Blue Eaglet has had some nifty games for the Bulldogs. Not bad for a kid who used to play behind the likes of the Nieto Twins and Jolo Mendoza back in high school.

    Expectations: UE was tagged as the early contender for the basement of Season 80, and were it not for a late round win over UP, they may very well be in said basement right now.

    UE is the only UAAP team without an import, and it is supposedly a management direction, although the more veteran basketball observers have lain this squarely at the feet of head coach Derek Pumaren. UE did after all have an import when Pumaren arrived three years ago, 6-8 Bertrand Awana. Awana had already played in the offseason tournaments and was then eligible already to see action in the UAAP. Pumaren however decided to remove him from the program completely for reasons not quite fully explained.

    Since then the Warriors have gone All Filipino, not a bad thing per se, as La Salle and the Ateneo had done the same with some success in the earlier parts of this decade. But the huge difference was that both the Blue Eagles and the Green Archers of that time had truly superior local talent. UE right now has nowhere near that level of talent.

    In fact the only Warrior worth a mention right now is burly 6-2 forward Alvin Pasaol, a recruit from Cebu who was already showing glimpses of his star game last season. Pasaol unloaded 49 points, the second highest individual scoring output in UAAP history, in a tough loss against reigning champion La Salle. He followed that up with 32 points in that win over State.

    Sure, they have some other pieces, like Philip Manalang, Mark Olayon, Nick Abanto, Clark Derige, Jason Varilla, but seriously, outside of Pasaol there isn't one elite player among them, and even Pasaol isn't exactly in the same league as say former Warrior Kings James Yap or Paul Lee.

    Surprise: Alvin Pasaol can ball, and teams need to make sure he doesn't out up new career numbers on them.

    Expectations: How the heck can UST, with the talent on their roster, possibly be winless as of this writing. They are now 0-8 by the way, so they started out Round 2 the way they did Round 1, losing to State, this time by two points.

    Marvin Lee, Oliver De Guzman, JC Escalambre, Jordan Sta Ana, Reggie Basibas, Chris Garcia, Justin Arana, Jeepy Faundo, and 6-8 center Steven Akomo possibly go winless after eight friggin' games in a field this weak?

    Seriously, how many teams have locals with the quality size of Faundo and Arana, plus they have Akomo who is currently an MVP contender.

    At around the midpoint of the first round there were actually four (!) Growling Tigers among the Top 11 MVP contenders in the league. That was no typo: 4 out of the Top 11 MVP contenders came out of UST at some point in the first round of the eliminations. How then can anybody say they lack talent?

    Could the fault then all lie with head coach Boy Sablan? "Alam mo naman ako, I don't agree with your mentality about the coach being that important, tingin ko minimal impact ng coach sa team, pero sa kaso ng UST baka may punto ka," quipped Mr ...
  4. Expectations II

    Expectations: There were already some rumblings in the offseason that the FEU Tamaraws would not be among the top contenders in Season 80, simply because they lost too much talent and no replacements came in.

    It was tough enough that the only legitimate superstar they had last season was hardworking forward Raymar "Toto" Jose, and to some extent guard Monbert Arong. They didn't even find replacements for those guys.

    Sure, two former Ateneo stalwarts had transferred and were now eligible to see action in Season 80: forward Arvin Tolentino and guard Hubert Cani, both of whom were high priority recruits coming out of the Junior Division. But after their so-so performances as Blue Eagles, at best a lot of the keener observers were saying this would probably amount to a "start from scratch" or "new beginning" for these two.

    They are also still trying to find their identity as a team with a rookie head coach in Olsen Racela. Some newcomers like RJ Ramirez had a great summer tournament but have not found much traction yet this season. Import Prince Orizu us still a handful in the lane but isn't really someone you can get the ball to and expect to produce at will.

    Surprise: That old saying about a good team always being good does not apply this season to FEU. There just isn't enough talent here to be considered a serious contender, for all the good they showed in the offseason.

    FEU always used to have very good forwards who made up solid front lines - Jose was the latest PBA D League MVP and now a Gilas Cadets mainstay and prospective Top 5 pick in the upcoming PBA Draft - but now it seems that era is over.

    Expectations: UP had arguably the biggest win this season when they upset reigning champion La Salle behind the 30-point explosion of veteran guard Paul Desiderio.

    Desiderio and UP started off their season with a heck of a finish versus UST, with Desiderio (again) providing the game-winning three-pointer, which he called in their last timeout.

    But their overall lack of proven star talent is showing. They put in 16 three-pointers, tying the UAAP record, when they beat La Salle. How often does that happen for any team? Certainly not often enough that you can count on it everytime.

    True enough the Fighting Maroons are a game under .500 with Desiderio and to some extent rookie transfer Jun Manzo doing most of the carrying.

    Surprise: That upset victory over La Salle ought to make their season already.
  5. Expectations

    Here is how the UAAP Season 80 landscape looks like after the end of the first round of eliminations last weekend:

    Ateneo De Manila : 7 - 0
    De La Salle : 5 -2
    Adamson : 5 - 2
    Far Eastern : 4 -3
    National : 3 - 4
    State : 3 - 4
    University of the East : 1 - 6
    Santo Tomas : 0 - 7

    Some preseason expectations were met, some were not, and there were surprises all around.

    Expectations: Ateneo De Manila came into Season 80 a year older, wiser, and stronger, after an unexpected runner-up finish last season. They were supposed to be rebuilding last season, yet somehow they made it into the Finals, and became the only team to beat archrival and regining champion La Salle in the eliminations.

    They returned this season intact, and they are playing truly beautiful, team-oriented, system-based basketball. "I always emphasize proper spacing, and movement, and that is what we are trying to do every game," explained head coach Tab Baldwin in one interview.

    With the exception of their cardiac classic of a game to end the first round against the Green Archers, the Blue Eagles have indeed made a good living with Baldwin's spacing and movement, beating the six other teams by double digits. Sure there were some anxious moments, particularly when UST came within 80-81 in the fourth period of their encounter, but for the most part the Blue Eagles have just been a joy to watch for basketball technicians and students of the game.

    Thirdy Ravena, now in his fourth year in college, and his third playing year, is the undisputed leader of the team. While he struggled against La Salle, he has basically done as he pleased against everyone else, and at one point was averaging a double-double. He remains in the Top 10 in the MVP race.

    Surprise: As good as the Ateneo was expected to be, even their most ardent fans probably did not expect them to sweep Round 1. They now have an even larger bulls eye on their collective backs going into Round 2.

    Expectations: La Salle is the reigning champion and as long as the mighty Benoit Mbala is on their roster they remain the prohibitive favorites to win back to back titles.

    Lets face it, Mbala is the best player the UAAP has ever seen. Ever. He is not only big, strong, fast, and athletic, but all of his skills are at very high levels. Heck, the man just came back from the FIBA Afrobasket tournament after emerging as the leader of a veteran Cameroon squad. He led his country to the quarterfinals, quite a feat for a guy who is not even on any NBA radar. Well... he WASN'T on any NBA radar in any event.

    Mbala also enjoys a very good support crew, albeit one whose core players are on the young side and sometimes how their youth at inopportune times, such as that inexplicable meltdown against State U. Aljun Melecio, who up to that point was La Salle's best complement to Mbala, scored only five points, while the La Salle defense allowed UP star Paul Desiderio to light them up for 30, built on six treys.

    Melecio was sorely missed in their other loss, the one to the Blue Eagles, as no one proved capable enough to play off Mbala. Ricci Rivero had 19 points in that loss but it was mostly off his own strong moves to the basket.

    "Mayhem got exposed to System," quipped long-time basketball observer and former varsity coach Alan Taule.

    La Salle was the one who was supposed to sweep Round 1. They may yet turn the trick in Round 2.

    Surprise: That loss to UP. Maybe it was one of those games where all the stars just seemed to align for the Fighting Maroons. For Mbala though, "We have to be more consistent, to play our game, and to play our defense." He was practically screaming to Melecio and Rivero to get him the ball, "I have (the) mismatch!" he screamed practically all game.

    Expectations: Adamson was supposed to be a legitimate contender this season, and with their slow start (Ateneo walloped them, so did La Salle) they looked like they were stuck in second gear.

    They are similar to the Ateneo in that their team returned virtually intact, and their key players are all a year older. Unfortunately it seems as if they did not actually grow wiser, or stronger. That is a yes and a no.

    There are times this Adamson team seems like they didn't really show much improvement, as in how they played last year is still how they play this year, for the most part: Jerick Ahanmisi is still primarily a jump shooter, Philip Manalang is a feisty, crafty point guard who can score in bunches from time to time, Sean Manganti and Simon Camacho are long, tall, athletes who occasionally show flashes of brilliance and exploit mismatches. Import Papi Sarr still does his best work within five feet of the basket and is still iffy from the freethrow line. ...
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